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Book Review: The Sound of Trumpets by John Mortimer

Sir John Mortimer is perhaps best know for creating one of literature's most irrascible yet loveable characters in Horace Rumpole. The Thames television adaptation of the novels - Rumpole of the Bailey - proved hugely successful in the 1980's. But as I have been discovering ever since, Rumpole is just the tip of a very huge iceberg.

Although still regarded primarily as a screenwriter, barrister, dramatist and raconteur par excellence, Mortimer, to my mind is also one of the finest twentieth century novelists in the English language. Discovering some of his early forays into novel writing is a revelation, like stumbling upon a one of those tranquil, Georgian squares while just yards away, the London hustle and bustle rumbles away.

I became lost in the rich prose and the concise, often startling metaphors of books like Three Winters, Charade and The Narrowing Stream. From these delights it was just a short step to the Rapstone Chronicles -Mortimer's tripartite series of novels in which an intelligent, always funny and at times moving presentation of life and death in middle England (and everything else inbetween) is lovingly crafted.

The result is a vast work in which the hopes and fears of a whole host of larger-than-life characters are portrayed with typical deftness and subtlety. Mortimer creates in Hartscombe a fictional town as solidlly English as a rainy seaside pier. With an eye that is as mischievous as it is keen, the writer then populates this town with a cast of characters who for all their foibles, one can't help but identify with, even like. Hartscombe has got the lot: men of cloth, men of straw, women of eminently good taste and occasionally even one or two of easy virtue.

Stemming no doubt from his long and varied career as a QC, Mortimer is also blessed with a very keen eye indeed for the absurdity of human behaviour. Such an eye ensures that the reader is only ever a sentence away from a chuckle, only ever a full stop away from a wry grin.

The third and final instalment of the trilogy - The Sound of Trumpets - presents a delicious story of political skulldugery as ambitious Labour candidate Terry Flitton attempts to wrestle the deeply conservative consituency of Hartscombe away from its long standing Tory masters. The path to political power though is not won on idealism alone. Pragmatism is the order of the day and sometimes, as Terry discovers, the means must satisfy the ends.

For it is not long before Terry finds himself on the radar of one of literature's most sinister villains, a man who makes Darth Vader look light in comparison, frivolous even. When Lord Leslie Titmuss decides to give Terry the benefit of his very considerable political experience, this is one pact with the Devil, that you can be assured will be paid in full. Titmuss has, in the words of the politician, "something of the night about him." And some more. All Mortimer's skills come to the fore in painting this unforgettble svengali. Whenever Titmuss creeps onto the page, the urge to hiss and boo is quite overwhelming.

Some of the similies are worth repeating in full. I'm yet to find an author - living or dead - who can compete with Mortimer in this area. Here are just a couple of examples, picked at random: Titmuss' voice - always rasping at the best of times, is at one point, described as if it were 'ice cubes clacking around in an empty glass.' An old sofa on which Terry seduces or is seduced by his older mistress Agnes, its foam coming out of the cushions, is 'a dead sheep with its intestines spilling out of its stomach.' And there's more - many more were they came from.

The Sound of Trumpets is part political thriller, part love story and part elegy for a past that has irrevocably gone. Political and social life are changing all around. Hartscombe goes from blue to red, Terry's future - both professional and personal - veers from certainty to uncertainty. Read one way this third instalment of the Rapstone Chronicles is an ominous reminder, a literary momento mori that change is all around and that death is part of life.

Read another way it's a political allegory, a story of the difficulties involved in reconciling political ambiton with personal integrity. I mean it wouldn't be the first time a politican has adpoted an alien political ideology purely in order to progress up the greasy pole, would it Mr Blair?

Which is not to say the mood is overtly pessimistic. For, as ever with Mortimer there is a full and frank enjoyment of life's pleasures, transitory or not. The author seems to say 'Bugger it! Let's live while we can.' Sex is never far away with Mortimer, nor is the gentle criticism of wishy washy liberalism, here embodied in a sub-plot involving young offenders and leftie do-gooding prison governors.

Reading The Sound of Trumpets it is all too easy to be seduced in the arms of a novelist who knows all the right buttons to press. The style is economical, the tone always edging towards irony. Although ostensibly the third part of the trilogy, The Sound of Trumpets like its predecessors can just as easily be read as a stand alone work.

If you appreciate wit, good writing and a delicately crafted story, you could do much worse than curl up for an evening with Mr Mortimer.