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John Mortimer Turns a Milquetoast Writer Into a Denizen of the Underworld


By John Mortimer

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247 pp., $22.95

Fastidious Felix Morsom, the protagonist of John Mortimer's latest comic mystery, "Felix in the Underworld," spends his days writing quiet novels and admiring the neatness of his desk.

Though Felix was once nominated for the esteemed British Booker Prize, his years as a bestselling author seem hopelessly past, and now he writes for a dwindling audience of elderly ladies who sometime send him letters "in spidery handwriting, written on thin paper."

Going through the motions of his latest tepid book tour, he's mocked by greasy radio talk-show hosts and confronted by earnest fans desperate to know if he writes with a pen or a pencil.

Inevitably, he finds his books losing out to romance novelists like Sandra Tantamount, who writes about "sex and shenanigans in the world of international contract bridge."

When a fan complains that nothing seems to happen in his fiction, Felix gently defends himself: "I'm not one for the big moments. I just hint at them through glimpses of everyday life in a seaside town." But try as he might to justify his pastel portraits, the fact is, he writes boring books because he's afraid of the drama of real life.

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All this suddenly changes, of course, though not voluntarily. Mortimer, the British author of many stories about Rumpole the barrister, knows how to spin a good mystery and a good joke. In his latest delightful novel, the comedy is aimed at the withdrawn novelist and the extroverted characters determined to profit from him.

Mortimer hoists this gentle man from his seaside desk and plunges him into an ordeal straight from Kafka's imagination. At a book signing, while straining to prolong the patter with fans so the line at his table won't disappear entirely, Felix is suddenly confronted by a sequined woman in a purple mini-skirt who claims he's the father of her hauntingly mature 11-year-old son.

As he struggles to dismiss the outlandish paternity suit, he's suddenly fingered as the prime suspect in a murder and must flee into the lurid underworld of London to find the real culprit.

This is squeamish business for a man used to holding his breath in revolving doors. He must chase a murderer, assume an alias, enlist the assistance of thugs, beg for money, and outwit the police. There's real horror here in the back streets, but it gradually transforms his emptiness into a reason for living.

While Felix learns to be more real, Mortimer has great fun with the entirely unreal characters who swirl around him, excited by his newfound notoriety.

His grotesque attorney, aptly named Septimus Roache with "the face of a discontented Pekinese," jumps at the chance to defend a depraved writer. His publisher, who came to publishing by way of success in the pet-food market, is thrilled by Felix's tabloid publicity.

Only his publicist and chaste lover clings to her faith in Felix's innocence, knowing that "not doing things is his specialty."

* Ron Charles teaches English at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

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