Do Not Pass Go: John Mortimer’s Quite Honestly

Mortimer, John. Quite Honestly. Penguin, 2006.

This is another short book that you might be tempted to dismiss as somewhat lightweight. It is lighthearted, another thing entirely. If you like John Mortimer’s fiction, you will enjoy Quite Honestly. Bishop’s daughter Lucinda Purefoy wants to do good so becomes a preceptor with Social Carers, Reformers and Preceptors (SCRAP). Her first client is burglar Terry Keegan whom she meets outside Wormwood Scrubs on the day of his release from that venerable institution. Terry and Lucinda’s relationship is highly complicated, but the effects they have on each other are quite profound. To say any more would give away too much of the plot, which unfolds through alternating first person narratives told by Lucy and Terry.

While Quite Honestly is a highly entertaining book, it offers more than simple situation comedy. The differing perspectives of Lucy and Terry reveal something of the rifts that remain within British society. Lucy and Terry come from apparently different worlds that see each other but have little understanding of each other. Mortimer places contemporary British society under a Horatian microscope. His satire is not unkind, but it is satire, and the foibles and follies of his characters bring them at times close to stereotypical caricature, but exaggeration is what one expects of satire. Mortimer’s exaggeration is gentle; one senses he has no contempt for his characters’ weaknesses only a wry sympathy.

Mortimer’s writing depends on a subtle wit and a dramatic sensibility. He was, after all, both a dramatist and a novelist. If you think about it, his fiction is scenic, often dependent upon dialogue or interior monologue—the fictive parallel to drama’s soliloquy and aside. I’m tempted at times to assert that in some ways Mortimer’s sensibility is more eighteenth than twentieth and twenty-first century, his work at times recalling the mood of Goldsmith or Sheridan.

I also appreciate Mortimer’s gentle irony in his use of language. Consider Lucinda’s name, for example. Lucy or light, and Purefoy, pure faith. Lucy isn’t necessarily enlightened or completely honest. Then, too, her name recalls that other character who was the brightest and best of all the angels, but pride was his downfall. Maybe this is true for Lucy as well. Then there’s the ambiguity in the title: Quite can be used to suggest complete conviction as in saying that one is “quite sure” about something. But if one says one has had “quite a pleasant time,” the word suggests a certain hesitation, an inability to express wholehearted approval.

Quite Honestly is a novel of shifting perspectives, reversals, and gentle but piercing insight. The ending suggests the possibility of a traditional comic resolution but remains —dare I say it?—quite satisfactorily inconclusive.



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