Mortimer's first novel now in US edition

Charade, by John Mortimer. New York: Viking Penguin. 188 pp. $16.95. Although I count myself a fan of John Mortimer's larger-than-life creation, Rumpole of the Bailey, and can easily see how that grumpy, lovable, anti-American curmudgeon took America by storm, I am at a loss to account for the more general strain of Mortimer-mania so rampant on both sides of the Atlantic. Critics in the throes of this strange enthusiasm have been known to proclaim Mortimer's ``Paradise Postponed'' the equal of Waugh's ``Brideshead Revisited,'' this, despite the sad fact that ``Paradise Postponed'' combined trite themes and an improbable plot with smaller-than-life characters in scenes so sketchily written as to raise the suspicion that the book was not meant as a novel at all, but was merely a draft for the television screenplay - which, indeed, was more fully fleshed out than the book.

Mortimer's first novel, ``Charade,'' published now for the first time in America 40 years after its English debut, reveals just how early in his career Mortimer arrived at his slick modus operandi. Although the story is about the loss of innocence, the manner of telling is so mechanical, so lacking in innocence or spontaneity, that it is hard to feel the pangs of loss the hero endures.

Just before the invasion of Normandy, the hero joins a film crew making a documentary about army training. During the filming, a ``real-life'' soldier is killed. Accident or foul play? To his shock, the hero finds that neither the ``fantasy world'' film people nor the ``real-life'' army is particularly interested in the truth. One group cares only about the movie, the other only about winning the war. Unfortunately, because none of the characters has been portrayed as having any more emotional or psychological depth than Pac-Man, the reader would have been more surprised had one of them behaved decently.

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