(Jump over to read a review of Rumpole and the Reign of Terror)
(Reviewed by Guy Savage APR 19, 2007)
“Some of these lads come from quite decent homes. They could hold down a reasonable job. What’s so great about pinching laptops from the cars of sales reps who’ve stopped for a pee in a service station? There’s a piece in here.” He searched among the books and pamphlets that littered his desk. “Here it is! ‘Petty crime in the metropolitan environment.’ It’s by a doctor. He suggests it’s all because they take too much salt in their food. Seventy-five percent of those convicted of theft in the Grimsby area admitted they liked their food well salted. Bloody nonsense! I take salt with my food and I don’t steal laptops.”
The comic novel Quite Honestly by John Mortimer lampoons many cherished ideals while asking some intriguing questions about crime, rehabilitation, and the nature of good intentions. Lucinda Purejoy, the daughter of the Bishop of Aldershot freely admits she’s had a “lot of privileges.” After finishing university, and at loose ends, Lucinda--Lucy to her friends--discovers that she’s rather interested in the “causes of crime.” Determined to “do a bit of good in the world” she’s introduced to an organization called SCRAP (Social Carers, Reformers, and Praeceptors). As a fresh, idealistic and naïve volunteer, she’s assigned to be the praeceptor to a freshly released career criminal, Terry Keegan.
Although Terry is only in his twenties, he’s been in and out of various reform schools, institutions and jails for a great part of his life. The product of a broken home, and an unstable mother, he drifted into living with relatives—specifically an uncle who happens to be a bank robber. To Lucy, and Alexander Markby, Terry’s parole officer, Terry is a textbook case of a career criminal. Lucy believes that crime is rooted in “poverty” “lack of education” and “the corruption of the monetary society.” Lucy is committed to helping Terry and ensuring he doesn’t ‘re-offend.’ Warned by Markby that she “must never step down from” her role as a “teacher” Lucy sets out to place Terry on a path of non-criminal success. But just how far is she prepared to go to make sure Terry doesn’t end up back in jail?
Quite Honestly unfolds through the eyes of its two leading protagonists—Lucy and Terry, and alternating chapters shift between the points of view of these two characters. Both characters describe their initial meeting, and this opening establishes the novel’s style. Lucy and Terry have their own social limitations and prejudices which they inevitably bring to their relationship, and the opposing viewpoints of each character establishes the difficulties these two have with fundamental communication. Lucy is painfully out-of-her depth with Terry. She’s never even met a criminal before. Terry, on the other hand, sees Lucy as one of the enemy and can’t wait to get rid of her. As far as he’s concerned he’s served his time “and read Crime and Punishment.” At first, he doesn’t think he needs help, and he wants “to be shot of all those concerned-looking individuals who thought they knew more about Terry Keegan than Terry Keegan knew about himself.” The novel then sails on from this initial meeting and follows the relationship that develops between do-gooder Lucy and Terry as he tries to go straight.
With tongue-in cheek humour, author Mortimer (who created the fictional Rumpole of the Bailey character) sets up some deliciously sly, funny scenes, frequently examining the ego-gratification derived from do-gooders seek through their exemplary deeds. Some of the funniest scenes in the book involve Lucy’s parents—her father the Bishop and her hopeless mother—a woman who watches the clock and pounces on the Gin at noon (“The sun’s over the yardarm. Who’s for a little G&T?”). The Bishop lives on his own planet, loves to read letters that attack him in the Daily Telegraph, and is seriously troubled by the thought that god has any relationship with Bush and Blair. In Lucy’s world, “they all talked about sin and crime” but no one actually ever does anything illegal—the closest anyone comes to a criminal act is Lucy’s hapless mother who “fell a victim to the G&Ts.” The novel follows Terry and Lucy’s relationship as he struggles to readjust to a "normal" crime-free life, and along the way, Mortimer creates some wonderful characters—Robin, the preening owner of a pretentious bistro, and Chippy, Terry’s nemesis and former partner in crime—an extremely successful thief who’s taken so much from society (by way of burglary), he too wants to "give something back"—well sort of….Some writers might create a plot in which Lucy became involved in Terry’s crime sprees and ended up as a stereotypical victim, but Mortimer’s wicked humor has an entirely different plan in store for Lucy. This is a lighthearted, amusing and enjoyable read. Quite delightful.
- Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Charade (1947)
- Like Men Betrayed (1953)
- The Narrowing Stream (1954)
- Heaven and Hell (including The Fear of Heaven and The Prince of Darkness) (1976)
- Edwin and Other Plays (1984)
- In Character (1984)
- Summer's Lease (1988)
- Great Law And Order Stories (1990)
- The Rapstone Chronicles (omnibus) (1991)
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: Father Brown, Father Dowling And Other Ecclesiastical Sleuths (1992) (with G K Chesterton, Ralph McInerny)
- The Oxford Book of Villains (1992)
- Dunster (1992)
- Under the Hammer (1994)
- Felix in the Underworld (1996)
- Quite Honestly (2005; February 2007)
- Rumpole of the Bailey (1978) (The First Rumpole Omnibus )
- The Trials of Rumpole (1979) (The First Rumpole Omnibus )
- Rumpole (1980)
- Regina v Rumpole (1981)
- Rumpole's Return (1982) (The First Rumpole Omnibus )
- Rumpole for the Defence (1982) (The Second Rumpole Omnibus)
- Rumpole And the Golden Thread (1983) (The Second Rumpole Omnibus)
- Rumpole for the Prosecution (1986)
- Rumpole's Last Case (1987) (The Second Rumpole Omnibus)
- Rumpole And the Age of Miracles (1988) (The Third Rumpole Omnibus)
- Rumpole And the Age for Retirement (1989)
- Rumpole a La Carte (1990) (The Third Rumpole Omnibus)
- Rumpole On Trial (1992)
- The Best of Rumpole: A Personal Choice (1993)
- Rumpole And the Angel of Death (1995) (The Third Rumpole Omnibus)
- Rumpole And the Younger Generation (1995)
- Rumpole Rests His Case (2001)
- Rumpole And the Primrose Path (2002)
- Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (2004)
- Rumpole and the Reign of Terror (November 2006)
- Rumpole Misbehaves (November 2007)
- Zerah Colburn the Spirit of Darkness (2005)
- Clinging to the Wreckage (1982)
- Murderers And Other Friends: Another Part of Life (1994)
- The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully (2000)
- Where There's a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life (2003)
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- Wikipedia page on John Mortimer
- Guardian Unlimited article on John Mortimer
- Salon article on John Mortimer
- MadKane profile on John Mortimer
- North Yorkshire on evening with John Mortimer
- Guardian Unlimited review of Quite Honestly
- MostlyFiction.com review of Rumpole books
- International Herald obituary for John Mortimer
- The New York Times obituary for John Mortimer
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About the Author:
Sir John Clifford Mortimer was born in 1923. He was educated at Harrow School (1937-40) and Brasenose College, Oxford (1940-42, BA 1947), and, like his father, he became a barrister in 1948 after serving as a scriptwriter and assistant director for the Crown Film Units during World War II. Mortimer's first novel, Charade, was also published in 1948, and within ten years he had published six more novels. His third radio play, The Dock Brief, which was produced by the BBC Third Programme in 1957, won the Italia Prize and was produced on the stage in 1958, along with the first play he wrote for the stage, What Shall We Tell Caroline? Among his subsequent stage plays are The Wrong Side of the Park (1960), The Judge (1967), A Voyage Round My Father (1970), and Collaborators (1973). Mortimer also wrote the screenplays for the films Cider with Rosie and Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussollini, which starred Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
Unlike his playwright contemporaries, the “angry young men” of the 1950s, Mortimer came from an upper-class background, wrote about the middle classes in decline, and followed established theatrical traditions. He is better known for his one-act plays than his full-length ones, and he is perhaps best known for his "Rumpole of the Bailey" novels and television series, and for his television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Mortimer continued to work as a lawyer and became a Queen's Counsel (1966) and Master of the Bench, Inner Temple (1975). In a celebrated case in 1970 he successfully defended the publishers of Oz against pornography charges.
Mortimer married twice, first to author Penelope Fletcher Dimont (1949, divorced 1971), and second to Penelope Gollop (1972-), and he had two children with each.
He lived in what was once his father’s house in the Chilterns. He received a knighthood for his services to the arts. He died January 16, 2009 at the age of 85 years old. He had been ill for some time.