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Felix in the Underworld

Written by John Mortimer

(abridged by Kate Nichol)

Penguin Audio Books, ISBN 0-14-086151-3, 1997

(I found the following on a web page, but I’m afraid I can’t remember where!)

For me, ‘Felix in the Underworld’ read by Michael Pennington has to be one of the treats of the year. This is John Mortimer at his unrivalled best, and coupled with Michael Pennington’s skilfully rendered characters – endearing, hilarious, menacing and irritating by turns, you couldn’t ask for a more entertaining combination. The story’s chuckle-factor ranges from the quiet snicker to the full-bellied guffaw with a good dose of ‘oh, no’s’ in between!

The story opens with Felix Morson working on his new novel (he’s been referred to as the Chekhov of Coldsands). His train of thought (which, if truth be told, has more to do with the alignment of his pens and other paraphernalia rather than with his writing) is slowly impinged upon by someone relating a story involving a couple of plain-clothes men, a police cell and indecent sexual acts in the lavatory! This, apparently from the radio. But when Felix discovers that the source of the strange story is actually a tape, which has been sent from a so-called ‘fan’, Felix’s life takes a nasty turn for the worse. With accusations of fathering an unknown (to him) child and suspicion of murder to follow. And while Felix did think it would be rather useful if he had a few new experiences to spice up his new novel – this isn’t exactly what he had in mind!

Real-life is full of far-fetched coincidences. But stick them into fiction and you’re in for trouble – no one will believe it! In the same way, fictional characters that are off are often unconvincing. And while there’s nowt as queer as folk, there’s nowt so difficult to pull off as letting odd characters roam freely around on the page. John Mortimer’s ear for dialogue and eye for character are so spot on that the most quirky characters and situations become completely convincing and Mortimer appears to achieve the effect effortlessly.

With incisive insights into the worlds of publishing and the law, he also manages to comment on the state of modern day Britain.

Skilfully avoiding the trap of stereotyping, Michael Pennington’s characters take on a life of their own and stay with you fro a long time afterwards. The subtle edge of threat present in the deadpan intonation of Gavin, the shady character who makes Felix’s life such a misery, is inspired. As are the voices of the solicitor who Felix hopes will extricate him from the charge of murder, and the police sergeant who has a bee in his bonnet: “It’s down to kinds in my opinion. It’s a little known fact that 69% of violent crime in this area is down to the under 12’s. Make our job a whole lot easier if they went to school in cuffs and were locked up at night.” Now I wonder who Jack Straw was talking to! Or what about one Jasper Kettering, proprietor of Epsilon book publishers, touting for business: “ If you have anything in your bottom drawer, sir anything which may have given Tupel-Smith of Llama cold feet, say we say, flagellation, bestiality, necrophilia, socialism. . . We could of course publish you under a suitable pseudonym.”

This is 3 hours of sheer entertainment. Top marks. I’ll certainly be on the look out for further tales from Mortimer and Pennington – an inspired combination.

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