John Lawton's striking new suspense novel, Bluffing Mr. Churchill, is set in the period between the height of the London Blitz and America's entry into World War II. In this prequel to Lawton's Inspector Troy series, an Austrian who has insinuated himself into the upper echelons of the Nazi SS and has spied first for Poland and then for the United States is now on the run. The narration rotates among several points of view those of the spy, his Nazi pursuers, his American handler, several British agents and the British policeman who ultimately must make sense of what has occurred. As the main action is playing out, Nazi officer Rudolph Hess lands a plane in Scotland on a mysterious true-life mission that has never been fully explained.
The author also brings other historical figures such as Reinhard Heydrich, a brutal SS chief, to life, and grants memorable cameos to a number of famous men and women who personified the times. One of the most chilling scenes involves Heydrich's examination of the hands of a corpse that the fleeing spy has tried to pass off as his own. A surgeon has neatly removed the hands from the corpse and Heydrich's assistant has a great deal of trouble deciding how to carry them into the room. He settles on a silver desert tray, and the fastidious Heydrich examines them very casually as if it were all part of a perfectly normal day. Another of the cameos is made by H.G. Wells, and in a comment that illustrates Lawton's deftness in handling a broad range of tones, Wells is described as "having endured as much of his own silence as he could manage in the course of a single meal."Freddie Troy is kept mostly on the sidelines in this novel, but all of the characters are vividly sketched. The exposition of their backgrounds is pointed and efficient, and their voices are differentiated enough for the reader to keep them straight but not so much that they seem caricatured. Overall, Bluffing Mr. Churchill is a historically fascinating story that is masterfully told. Martin Kich is an English professor at Wright State University.