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Book Review: Dunster by John Mortimer

John Mortimer is probably best-known these days for Rumpole, the irascible TV barrister married to the indomitable she-who-must-be-obeyed, a thinly-disguised portrait of the author’s QC father who, fair to say, left an indelible mark upon his only son. Wildly successful as his stage and dramatic works were, there was however another side to Mortimer: the somewhat dilettante novelist.

I say dilettante because Mortimer’s novel writing career was abandoned early on then taken up later in life, a bookend to his career as a dramatist. Early novels such as Charade are jam-packed full of promise, the work of a highly talented and always wry observer of human folly. Dunster came along later, post theatre and TV and along with The Sound of Trumpets and Summer’s Lease is arguably his finest novel.

War crimes, sexual awakenings, marriage break-downs, amateur dramatics and court-room wranglings, Dunster is indeed a hugely entertaining novel, part comic, part tragic, centring around the disparate characters of two men whose lives, for good or for worse, are destined to be forever intertwined. A love-hate tale unfolds.

Philip Progmire is a mild mannered accountant with a bent towards amateur dramatics, while old school ‘friend’ Dick Dunster is quite the opposite: a malcontent, restless spirit and proud contrarian. The parts of the novel which trace the relationship between the two men creak under the weight of Mortimer’s keen wit. Whatever he does, wherever he goes Progmire can never quite rid himself of Dunster. Friend or foe? Mortimer leaves the question dangling in the air.

Whether Dick Dunster is in fact a force for good or evil is entirely down to the reader to judge. As far as enigmas go, for my money Dick Dunster is right up there with Hamlet, references to whom coincidentally are strewn throughout the novel. Mortimer’s description of the always sardonic and brooding Dunster contrasts wonderfully with Progmire’s staid, middle of the road company accountant – a man who yearns for artistic fulfilment but spends his days preparing the balance sheets of the Megalopolis Television Company.

As ever with a Mortimer work there’s plenty of different strands to this novel. Pure nostalgia are Progmire’s reminisces which include, but are not restricted to, losing his virginity and fleeting success as a schoolboy actor.

While the past in Mortimer is always impressionistic, always longed for, remembered like a favourite bedroom or girlfriend, in this novel it is a place perhaps best forgotten. Back in the present, the breakdown of Progmire’s marriage, portrayal of precocious daughter and description of amateur theatre group the Mummers will strike more than a chord no doubt for those of a biographical disposition.

If anything Dunster is not just a novel about the past, but moreover its inscrutability. In this novel it is indeed a different country, literally so. In the at-times complex sub-plot set in the Second World War and where German and allied forces fight for the heart and soul of Italy, even good men can be corrupted.

It’s typical of Mortimer to then involve his two central characters – chalk and cheese – in a much darker plot that revolves around a long forgotten war crime. Progmire and Dunster, friendly enemies, are drawn into a plot which will pit them against one another for one final time.

Using all his experience gleaned from the High Court and a life spent in silks, Mortimer QC chooses to end the book with a courtroom showdown where, as ever, Progmire and Dunster find themselves on opposing sides of the argument where the reader’s expectations are deftly usurped in a masterful twist.

One of the many delights in this novel lies not solely in assuming the role of reader, but that of judge and jury too. If you’ve never read the late, philandering genius who was John Mortimer, I tell ya you’ve been seriously missing out. Dunster takes it place in my fave top ten novels of all time.