A leopard who changes his spots can't be spotless

THE SOUND OF TRUMPETS By John Mortimer Viking 273 pp., $23.95

Satirists couldn't ask for richer material than the current political soil. In fact, if comedy depends on exaggerating human foibles, it's getting hard to find foibles that aren't already stretched to absurdity.

But John Mortimer is up to the challenge. This elder statesman of English mysteries knows where all the bodies of comedy are buried. His latest novel, "The Sound of Trumpets," skewers political opportunists with deadly results.

Terry Flitton is an ambitious liberal, determined to snatch the parliamentary seat away from Conservatives who have held it for decades. As confident as he is glib, Terry represents the new Labour Party, a telegenic mixture of old-style concern for the poor and hip acknowledgment of market realities, a defender of the downtrodden complete with a cell phone.

Always in loyal attendance, his lovely but tedious wife, Kate, is a liberal in the third degree who believes "the truth was great and would prevail once the Nativity play was abolished in favour of the enactment of multi-ethnic legends and Afro-Caribbean history took the place of grim reminders of Henry VIII and the British Empire." Together they're determined to organize the masses, create a utopian society, and get people to sort their rubbish more carefully.

Despite Terry's confidence, victory is only a remote possibility until he receives a call from Leslie Titmuss, a member of Parliament and the crotchety Lord of Hartscombe. An archconservative living in bitter solitude since Margaret Thatcher's fall from power, Titmuss offers to help from the depth of his political knowledge.

It's an odd alliance, to be sure, but Titmuss is determined to make Terry win in order to punish a member of the Conservative Party who turned against Mrs. Thatcher. "Revenge is one of the few remaining pleasures of old age," Titmuss explains.

Accepting clandestine assistance from "the enemy" turns out to be Terry's first step toward a stunning political victory and complete moral demise. As the campaign starts to turn his way, he slips quickly and thoughtlessly into an affair with an old trust-fund liberal, comforting himself with the excuse that his wife and this woman live in "different worlds."

When Kate objects to her husband's sudden shift to the right - an expediency engineered by Titmuss - Terry explains patiently that he needs to get elected before he can pursue his real agenda.

Of course, that's a Faustian bargain, with Lord Titmuss in the role of Mephistopheles. But as long as Terry is useful to him, Titmuss helps him control the press, redesign his past, and knock his opponent off balance. The old master makes it his business to know everyone else's business, and his knowledge of embarrassing deaths and sexual peccadillos keeps him firmly in control at all times.

Mortimer is one of those master writers who make it look easy. Decades of success in print and on television have given him a Titmuss-like command of his characters. Here, as usual, he tells a story with such sustained and disciplined wit that moments of outrageous absurdity are all the more delightful. This social commentary is perfect tea-time diversion for those who like their herbs bitter.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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