John Mortimer is a name near-sacred to fans (count me among them) of the delightfully daft, literate and long-running British TV comedy
Rumpole of the Bailey. However, the Rumpole series (put between covers, it comprises 12 collections of stories!) is merely one jewel in his authorial crown. The former barrister has been admirably prolific over many years as novelist, playwright, and creator of film and radio scripts. In 1998, having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, he became Sir John Mortimer.
For reasons of such a storied reputation, I was ready to be entranced by this short novel, organized into alternating his view/ her view chapters. I had imagined it as a comedic romp with wonderfully skewed characters in a plot proffering what sounded like a fresh twist (a criminal reforms, a reformer offends) on crime and attitudes toward it in contemporary Britain’s “green and pleasant land.” Perhaps I set myself up to be disappointed. I was.
The plot meanders, taking off on side roads with characters and situations that go nowhere. The central twenty-something couple are paper thin characters - a petty thief paroled from prison and a bishop’s daughter determined “to do a bit of good in the world.” She’s assigned by a parolee counseling organization to try weaning him from an ingrained habit of “nicking” mundane objects and fencing them for food and lodging.
As crafted, the pair fail standards set by certain memorable mismatched couples in literature - exemplars like Petruccio and Katherine, Higgins and Eliza, Butler and O’Hara. (Though tempted, I shall not include Hilda and Horace Rumpole!). Mortimer’s Lucinda and Terry do not clash and set off sparks, nor do they banter and tease with wit or verve. He, in fact, is mainly glum, while she starts out with promise of being amusingly gaga but becomes merely grating.
Considering the disappointing central couple, it’s a plus to have a few other characters who add touches of heft to Mortimer’s candy-floss-weight confection of a novel. There’s the
uber-tolerant bishop (in old British films, he would have been played by the inspired character actor Alistair Sim); a couple of amusing upper-class twits, one being a sports-mad reverend with a disconcerting speech impediment; and a small-time crime boss with organizing skills
that lead to seeming respectability without necessity of curtailing his lucrative law-breaking.
Clever turns of language – a joy in the “Rumpole” series – are thin on the ground here. Running across a diverting description, a scrap of tossed-off satire, or bit of zesty dialogue becomes akin to scoring the coin-in-the-Brit-Christmas-pudding. A few nuggets:
Though a distinctly tepid cup of British tea, this novel could yet find a place in backpacks and tote bags as summer reading. As a certain
weverend in the book might say, it’s certainly no cwime, to wead light when
- “He was a hawk-faced person with rimless glasses who might have been an off-duty headmaster and looked at everyone who came up for a decision as though they had been caught having sex in the playground...“
- “Those charming policemen in Aldershot had told me terrible things about Holloway (prison), but to tell you the truth I didn’t find it so bad as all that, not at least when you compared it with the horrible boarding school I went to in Ludlow.”
- “’Sport!’ Timbo told us while he poured out mugs of tea. ‘That’s what’ll keep you out of
cwime. Cultivate your cwicket. Concentrate on your wugby and you won’t go far wrong.’”