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The author of the Rumpole stories here transfers his generous comic talents to a larger scale, a novel that spans four decades. Mortimer's finest ability is crafting characters that elicit both laughter and sympathy, and this novel is full of them: eccentric, hilarious, yet thoroughly real. The Reverend Simcox, left-leaning local Pastor and an heir to the Simcox Brewery fortune, has died and left his whole inheritance not to his two sons or wife, but to one Leslie Titmuss. This unlikely choice--the local conservative M.P. who earned his seat by sleazy self-aggrandizement and untrammeled greed--sets the story in motion, as the Simcox sons unravel their father's motives. Henry, the elder and a writer, with an annulment in mind, tries to prove that his father was a lunatic. Fred, a doctor and jazz drummer, simply seeks the truth. Leaping back and forth in time, the narrative pieces together the lives of Leslie, Fred, and Henry from childhood to middle-age, through comedies of class, love, manners, and errors, all the while chasing the elusive mystery of the Simcox estate. The characters are introduced in broad satirical strokes--the apparently raffish show nobility, the idealistic cynicism, the soulful meanness. Mortimer mills humor from these ironies, as in Fred's mentor, a local doctor whose main advice to patients is not to cling to life too much, or the Reverend Simcox himself, for whom otherworldly concerns can wait till we get there. This is a novel both of and about disillusion, and an exploration of failed socialist ideals in postwar Britain. But the book's conclusion--that the saints were sinners all along, and the hoped-for New Jerusalem was chimerical--is intellectually and emotionally pallid; the build-up promised more. Nonetheless, a worthwhile story, alive with humanity and good humor.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1986
Publisher: Viking