John Mortimer is brilliant, and there can be no two ways about that. He is a cynic and he is a wit, and talented enough for that to put him almost in the company of Swift. He was also a lawyer, there is usually a legal thread even in his non-Rumpole novels, and there is one here, the mysterious case of a clergyman's will which seems to have left his entire fortune to a very unexpected and unwelcome beneficiary.
I found the plot-line in this novel very good indeed. The main mystery is cleared up in a very unexpected way, all hints and suggestions really lead somewhere, and while I suppose I would have to call it contrived, it is clever enough to be convincing in its own way. It is clever in the sense of being complex, but also in the way that Mortimer keeps switching the time-focus between different eras. He takes us from the start of Attlee's Labour government in 1945 all the way to the reign of Margaret in the 80's. The story of the will would not by itself have required a 40-year elapse. What requires that is the introduction of Leslie Titmuss, depicted starting with his modest boyhood and ending, in this book, with his fictional presence in Thatcher's cabinet. It needs no great legal genius to perceive that he is going to be good for a few more books, and so, of course, it has turned out.
So there is a political angle too, and if you know your author you will have expected that. He was one kind of leftist, and a kind that I greatly like. He had a privileged background, and he was `anti' just by nature. He was a rationalist and he was a libertarian. He found the toffs with origins similar to his own to be absurd and repulsive, but he was no Orwell, no wholesale convert to some other side. The colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady are sisters under the skin, after all. It's a human skin, and it's humanity in general that is prone to being absurd.
The characterisation is largely drawn from a political slant, therefore. Mortimer is not pushing any party-political programme all the same. Just describe some Young Conservatives, I suppose, and further comment would be superfluous. However the reverend himself, whose strange-seeming will forms the core of the narrative, is depicted as a self-caricaturing lefty, while Mortimer is conspicuously restrained in anything that might be construed as hostility to Titmuss, whose views must have been in many respects antithetical to his own. Malcolm Muggeridge, in his latter days as a born-again Christian and reactionary, had an excellent description for a whole tranche of C of E clergymen of this period, with their `feeble-minded confusion of the Christian faith with better housing, shorter hours of work, the United Nations and opposition to apartheid.' These are the polar examples. The others - I found them brilliantly drawn and developed altogether.
However in Mortimer there is always a good deal of social commentary, with minor characters put there for the overall picture and not for themselves. In many ways this is the best thing in the book, and it comes mainly at the beginning. You can't tell me that the schoolmates of Fred and Henry at their fictitious public school in East Anglia are not drawn from life. Mortimer attended Harrow School (as did Churchill), and they used to tell them there that the wind from the Urals hit Harrow-on-the-Hill without encountering any intermediate obstruction. Mortimer borrows this piece of lore for his school here in the book, so I infer that the incidental personae who come and go in the first chapter or two are real, with only the names changed to protect the questionably innocent. In particular there was apparently one boy who had a premature 5-o'clock shadow and was a great masturbator. He features in just a sentence or two, is never heard of again, and one is left wondering whether his onanistic eminence was a matter of a record level of activity, or whether he needed both hands simultaneously for the job, or exactly what it was. Somebody still alive might still remember.
The style of writing is of course delightful, but I caught Mortimer recycling a sentence that I had heard him use on television at least once, to the effect that there is no pleasure worth denying oneself for the sake of a few years in a sunset home in Weston-super-Mare. Poor old Weston-super-Mare. It is 60 years since I was there last, but having been warned off in this way I am electing to manage my later years by attending a gymnasium and eating and drinking less. Advancing age makes the latter pleasures less attractive anyway, to me at least. The book also features an elderly doctor who is largely there for the purpose of saying witty things, rather like Lord whatsisname in A Picture of Dorian Gray. This is entirely welcome. The doctor belongs properly in the narrative, and I would only utter a mild remonstrance for the pageful of his bons mots that is only there because Mortimer could not fit them into the story.
Behind the upper-middle-class English flippancy there is also a darker side to all this, and mentioning the doctor above reminds me of that. To me, it is all a potent brew, and I recommend the book thoroughly. Sir John Mortimer left our society only recently, but not before he had used at least one of his books to sound a coded but powerful warning of the threats to liberty that were being enacted by the over-plausible and endlessly self-justifying Tony Blair. The libertarian mentality runs through Mortimer's output, the threats to liberty depend on the eternal vigilance that is trumpeted so often by some of the people who threaten liberty most and are trying to hijack the vocabulary to their own political cause. Mortimer is good for our mental health.