Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Quite Honestly by John Mortimer








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In his new novel, Quite Honestly, John Mortimer deftly alternates narrators between Lucinda Purefoy, a bishop’s daughter, and Terry Keegan, a thief. Through this device, readers observe the same actions from two different points of view, each of which is authentic and consistent. Mortimer shines in this skill, and readers will look forward to how the other narrator sees things. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, narrated by Lucy, pp. 14-17:


He had dark curly hair and what I think they call ‘prison pallor’. What he didn’t have was a cheerful grin. Quite honestly, when he caught sight of me he looked distinctly uncheerful. All the same I managed a big smile as I moved towards him. Probably I was breaking Mr Markby’s number one rule and looking too friendly. But what the hell, I had to form some sort of relationship, even if he was going to be my pupil.

‘Hi there!’ I said. ‘You must be Terry Keegan.’

He stood looking at me in silence. To be truthful, he seemed astonished, as though he’d been unexpectedly approached by some sort of lunatic. Eventually, he spoke.

‘What if my name’s Terry Keegan? What do you want to make out of it, man?’ He spoke in a low gruff voice which came as an unpleasant surprise in the cheerful chap I’d been instructed to meet.

‘I don’t want to make anything of it. And I’m not a man, actually.’ I thought this was quite a funny thing to say, all things considered. Anyway I laughed, but Terry certainly didn’t. ‘I’m sure SCRAP have warned you about me, haven’t they? I’m your praeceptor. Probably you don’t know what that means.’

‘You needn’t bother to tell me.’

‘It means I’m your guide and philosopher.’ In deference to Mr Markby, I failed to say friend. ‘I’m here to help you find a job, a place to live and that sort of thing. Support you in any way I can. And I’m here to see you don’t ever go back inside that place again.’

The going-to-work traffic had grown louder and heavier rain was splattering the pavement. I had to raise my voice to be heard as I said the last sentence very loudly, so a small party of girls on their way to school turned their heads to stare curiously at Terry. This caused him to look even more crossly at me.

‘I don’t need no help,’ he growled, ‘so fuck off, will you?’

Well, I had to look on the bright side. At least he’d stopped calling me ‘man’.

‘My name’s Lucinda Purefoy,’ I told him, ‘but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so it’s perfectly all right if you call me Lucy.’

‘I don’t need to call you anything. In fact I don’t need you, full stop. So I’m fucking off, thank you very much.’

‘Don’t lose your temper with your client. Never give him that particular satisfaction.’ I was finding Mr Markby’s instructions particularly hard to follow. All I could think of doing was to look my client full in the eyes and say very deliberately, ‘Well then, fuck you!’

The effect of this was surprising. First Terry looked at me and seemed deeply shocked and even silenced. Had I said that in front of my father, the tolerant bishop, he wouldn’t have batted a single eyelid. Terry Keegan, with a string of convictions as long as your arm, was far more easily shocked. In fact he said, ‘What do you mean?’ which seemed to me to be a completely pointless question.

‘I mean I’ve been training for a month listening to dull lectures. I’ve postponed a job with an almost decent salary in an advertising agency. I’m prepared to spend time away from my boyfriend, Tom, who’s good-looking, never swears at me, has a perfectly clean record and is going to end up with an important job in television. And I’ve done all that to help you.’

‘I don’t need no help!’ He was still angry.

‘Oh yes, you do. Don’t you understand? Eighty-five per cent of criminals reoffend within two years of their release from prison. If I take my eye off you you’ll be back pinching laptops on garage forecourts or whatever you used to do.’

‘Breaking and entering premises by night.’ It seemed I had insulted him by talking about the laptops and he had a more important crime to boast about.

‘All right then. Breaking and entering. Whatever. Now tell me what you want to do that’s free and legal and has nothing to do with sex and we’ll do it.’

He stood there, looking at me in silent thought I’m sure it wasn’t silent prayer and then he said, rather improbably, ‘Burger King.’


‘I’ve had Scrubs food for nearly three years. I want to go to Burger King.’

‘All right,’ I said, and I waved, I’m afraid rather desperately, at a passing taxi. Talk about extravagance. I’d already broken practically every rule that Mr Markby had ever given us.


In the Burger King, Terry’s behaviour improved slightly, which wasn’t hard considering it was starting from such a remarkably low level. I bought him a Whopper burger with fries and onion rings and a big milky coffee with five spoonfuls of sugar. After he’d finished that, he ordered another Whopper and I’m sorry, Mr Markby, but I paid for all this because I couldn’t stand any further argument. I know it was weak of me.

As he finished the second Whopper I thought, poor sod, he’ll become disgustingly fat and lose any attractiveness he might have to women. I wondered if I should warn him of this, but then decided that I couldn’t be bothered. Instead I went on to more important business.

‘I have to make sure you’ve got a mobile phone.’

‘You want to give me a few minutes to pinch one?’ He gave me his first grin, but I decided it was high time to become strict and stand no more nonsense.

‘Of course not. I’ve bought you one to save you getting into trouble.’

I gave him the phone I had paid for, although my instructions from Mr Markby were simply ‘to make sure the client had a mobile’. It might have been very thick of me, but I couldn’t think of any way I could be sure of that without buying the thing.

‘Does it take photographs?’ Terry was turning over the little machine and looking at it critically.

‘No, it doesn’t take photographs. And you’ve got to ring me on that every morning and at six o’clock every evening so I know how you’re getting on. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, man,’ he gave me a sort of mock salute, ‘if that’s your orders.’

‘Never mind about my orders. Now, your probation officer tells me he’s got you a place in a hostel.’


‘No, he hasn’t got you a place?’

‘No, I’m not going to no hostel.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m free now, aren’t I? I can live my own life. I don’t have to spend another night in no sort of prison place Mr Markby’s sent me to. Forget it, man.’

The worst of it was that I could see his point. That’s my greatest weakness, being able to see other people’s points.

‘All right,’ I said, ‘where do you want to go?’

‘My Aunt Dot’s.’

‘Where’s your Aunt Dot live?’

‘Buildings up the end of Ladbroke Grove. Kensal Rise area. She’s always been pretty good to me, my Aunt Dot.’

I looked at him. He seemed to mean what he said. Once again I disobeyed instructions. ‘OK then. But call me on your phone as soon as you settle in. I’ll try and smooth it out with Mr Markby.’

Terry, it seemed, thought it over, wiped his mouth on the napkin provided and stood up. ‘I’ll be getting along then.’

‘I don’t suppose you’ll say “thank you”.’

‘Thank you for what?’

‘Taxi here, two Whoppers with fries and onions, and letting you choose your accommodation.’

‘I never asked you to do any of that,’ he said, and he sounded serious. ‘It was you did all the asking.’


Mortimer’s always a delight to read. His dialogue in Quite Honestly provides clear and distinct voices, punctuated by the alternating narrators. Fans of Rumpole may miss that character, but most readers will enjoy all that Quite Honestly has to offer.


Steve Hopkins, April 24, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2006 issue of Executive Times


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