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The Exorcism of a Pre-Rumpole Demon : LIKE MEN BETRAYED <i> by John Mortimer (Viking: $16.95; 208 pp.) </i>

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John Mortimer is best known as creator of that lovable British TV series “Rumpole of the Bailey,” which has become a virtual one-man industry including plays and six books of Rumpole stories. In English interviews and TV appearances, Mortimer’s plump, cheerful persona positivley overflows with a sort of liberal bonhomie. He is living proof that much food and good wine needn’t blunt your most obvious energies.

But what about the more obscure demons? They’re to be found in “Like Men Betrayed,” a short novel originally published here in 1953 and now reissued presumably to cash in on Mortimer’s TV fame. It’s a bad novel, overwritten, mechanically fatalistic, its prose at once stilted and exhausted. Curious, this. It’s as if Mortimer had reversed the usual writer’s passage, from youthful exuberance to elderly resignation. But a good writer’s mistakes are often instructive for a reader who, like myself, has sometimes wished that his author, famed for his good temper, might just occasionally kick the cat for no particular reason.

There’s plenty of that in “Like Men Betrayed.” Christopher Kennet is an agreeably dull, stoically inhibited solicitor in a bad marriage with a hating wife and a crooked son, Kit. Until Kit embezzles some money from one of his father’s clients, Kennet’s life is grayly predictable. “In Kennet, a type of middle-class Englishman had, in a sense, reached its culmination. The brutality and cunning that had brought the Kennets’ original wealth had been refined and educated away.” Mortimer admires, even loves, this “man of moderate sensuality who kept his head.” I suspect that Kennet, here understood and unworked-out, later found his way into a less advertised part of the character of the lawyer-philosopher Rumpole.

When Kit disappears into the London underworld--described unconvincingly as if taken from old Dirk Bogarde movies--Kennet searches for his son. The exploration shakes him out of himself, into an affair with a younger woman, and finally to a grisly end. Julian Symons has called this book “one of the great forgotten novels of the ‘50s.” A generous view, that. Charitably this is a thriller that reads like a first draft for a Grahame Greene “entertainment.” A more skilled hand might have turned it into a sympathetic study of the darker side of the England that we still insist on seeing as quaint and “civilized.” There’s a raw hatred of people here, a bleak loathing of all things English, which Mortimer has refined over the years into something more polished and bright. Of course we prefer Rumpole; I know I do. But I wonder if Mortimer might yet circle back on himself to do something with the snarling, resentful demon he exorcised--or not?--such a long time ago.

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