It must be over thirty years since I first read Emanuel Litvinoff’s exceptional novel “A Death Out of Season” – the first book of his Faces of Terror Trilogy. I remember being overwhelmed by the quality of the writing at the time. Not just a fine thriller but a literary novel of the first order. It’s vivid portrayal of Whitechapel in 1910/11 and its deeply-drawn characters have stayed in my mind ever since.
When I first read the book I had never been to Whitechapel. The novel inspired my own explorations in the 1990s, and, although the area has changed a great deal since the time Litvinoff was writing about, you can still get echoes of the Whitechapel he portrays by exploring its streets and alleys, and meeting the people there.
Emanuel Litvinoff was born in 1915 of immigrant parents. He grew up in the Jewish community of the East End leaving school at the age of fourteen, working in professions such as tailoring and carpentry, interspersed – as so many lives were in the 1930s – with periods of unemployment. He was mostly self-educated. He served in the British army during World War Two, reaching the rank of Major. He also served in West Africa and the Middle East. He was one of the best war poets of that conflict. Throughout his life he was a great champion of human rights and a far-sighted commentator on politics of humanity.
Since his death in 2011 his work has been curiously neglected. As far as I can see many of his books are out of print – a scandal! – though the Penguin editions of a few decades ago are readily available from second-hand book dealers. Apart from his own works he was a ghost writer to Louis Golding, which is an interesting tale in itself. There were two early and autobiographical novels “The Lost Europeans” set in post-war Berlin, and “The Man Next Door” which deals with anti-Semitism in suburban England. Litvinoff also wrote “Journey Through a Small Planet” one of the finest autobiographies of the twentieth-century.
But now I want to look at his 1973 novel “A Death Out of Season”. It is set mostly in Whitechapel during the winter of 1910/11 and deals with the background to the Houndsditch killings and the famous Siege of Sidney Street, when Latvian anarchists were besieged and finally killed by police officers and eventually the army after holding out for many hours.
Litvinoff’s book is a consummate spy-thriller dealing with the background to the two above events. It plunges the reader into a world of spies, Russian revolutionists, East End anarchist clubs and doubtful cafes where refugees fleeing Tsarist oppression congregate.
He fictionalises some of the characters who gained notoriety during the famous siege, such as Fritz Svaar and Peter the Painter. The latter character has been the subject of much debate by students of the Sidney Street Siege. Peter the Painter may not actually have existed at all, though he could possibly have been the Comrade Peters who played a role in the Russian Revolution.
More of that another time. If you want a good history of these events do seek out Donald Rumbelow’s excellent account “The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street” (revised edition 1988).
In the novel Litvinoff portrays him as Peter Piatkov, alias Stern. At the beginning of the novel Piatkov is a lieutenant of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police and is sent to London to incite an incident which the Tsarist regime hope might result in the revolutionists who have sought shelter in England being expelled. But is Piatkov playing a double or even a treble game? I won’t spoil this read by telling you.
This is very much Peter’s book. It tells how he falls in love with a Russian countess turned revolutionary Lydia Alexandrova, and their relationship, full of sexual tension, but thwarted by events, is very well-drawn. The kind of affair that might grow when people with secrets are trapped together.
Litvinoff does very well what I would describe as the claustrophobia of terror. The difficulties of the wanted man and woman who have to seek shelter in insalubrious slum dwellings, who have to seek recruits at revolutionary gatherings that might be full of spies and traitors, who develop almost a paranoia about being followed as they walk the crowded streets of the East End.
In the hands of a lesser writer this might almost have turned into a fairly average thriller. But Litvinoff is much better than that. He is a literary master who can create characters with such depth that you can empathise with them even if you don’t agree with their motives. In modern parlance we would describe many of the people portrayed in “A Death Out of Season” as terrorists. But Litvinoff’s humanity never lets us write off his characters in such a simplistic way. He forces you to care, to understand how people get caught up in the sweep of history – for good or bad.
The novel culminates in the Siege of Sidney Street. Litvinoff shows that he can do action as well as he does depth of character. Showing the Siege from both sides, we see only humans, not caricatures. This desperate last fight in a struggle that will go on without them, gives us an understanding that a poorer writer might never be able to bring forward. The Siege is thrillingly depicted. But we are never allowed to forget that the men being destroyed are human beings, whether or not we agree with their motivations.
So if you want to read a thriller that also happens to be a considerable literary novel do try “A Death Out of Season” and its two sequels – which I hope to review very soon – “Blood on the Snow” and “The Face of Terror”.
Emanuel Litvinoff was too good at writer to consign to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops. Let’s see him back in print!