Friends and Traitors
PublisherGrove Press
Date Published05 April 2018
Price£ 16.99

Friends and Traitors

by John Lawton

Frederick Troy, a member of the Metropolitan Police, forms an unlikely friendship with Guy Burgess, even though he is aware that he is probably a spy. Burgess's reappearance after his defection to the Soviet Union, puts Troy in danger.


The novel begins with a chapter consisting of one short sentence: ”Someone was following Frederick Troy.” It is a sentence that will occur more than once during the course of the novel.

Troy belongs to a family of Russian émigrés who came to England following the Bolshevik revolution, managing to bring with them the considerable wealth that they possessed. Troy had turned down the offer of an open exhibition at Christchurch, Oxford, in favour of a place at Hendon police college. Having become a uniformed officer in the Metropolitan Police, his ambition was to rid himself of the uniform as soon as possible and become a detective. It is 1935 when he meets Guy Burgess for the first time.

Troy's father is a member of the élite establishment, as we learn from the grand dinner he gives at the beginning of the novel, one guest at which is a future Prime Minister, Harold McMillan. Another is a young man, less well known, but about whom there are whispers in society. His name is Guy Burgess. There is a very long section that details the growing relationship between Troy and Burgess, one which Troy would be happy to discontinue but finds Burgess difficult to shake off.

Gradually Troy comes to regard Burgess as a friend. The picture of Burgess that emerges in the first part of the book does not offer anything new but he does come over as very much a formed character. The general view in government circles these days is that Burgess didn't do any particular harm to the British people and didn't do any particular good for the Soviet people. This was partly due to the amount of information he divulged. It was so extensive that the Soviet government suspected that it could not all be genuine and considered it unwise to act on it automatically. The real harm that the Burgess affair did was to show that a class of people who had been born into money, who had attended the most exclusive schools and the most famous universities, who attained positions of power and prestige, could be so ungrateful as to betray their country. It was a harsh realisation.

The Burgess that emerges from these pages doesn't seem terribly important. The one feature of his character that is emphasised is his homosexuality – something that appears to be all-consuming. We are led to believe that one of the reasons for Burgess's success – insofar as he was successful – is that he was frequently so drunk that nobody ever took him seriously. He is very witty and although his conversations with Troy always come back to his sexual predilections, they provide the novel with its amusing aspect. Nothing could be more characteristic of Burgess than the way in which he defected. Whilst the author makes no historical claim for the accuracy of his account, it is altogether believable that Burgess should join Maclean on his journey to Moscow almost accidentally.

This first part of the novel, although it always retains the reader's interest, is lacking in the kind of incident normally associated with the spy novel. All that changes, however, when Burgess appears again, this time looking for a way to return home. Troy still feels a certain friendship towards him and can't resist trying to help - a decision that has far-reaching consequences. The plot of this second part of the novel is altogether more complex and those readers who expected a more traditional story of espionage will not be disappointed.

Reviewed 24 May 2018 by Arnold Taylor