Felix Morsom, the principal character in John Mortimer's latest book, is a moderately successful mid-level novelist who lives in the fading English seaside resort town of Coldsands.
Felix's books, as one character puts it, "are all about sensitive people in situations which are only just hinted at." He's immensely flattered when a reviewer compares him to Chekhov.
As a "literary" author, his sales are lukewarm, so he's obliged to flog his works on talk shows and at bookstore signing sessions. And he's constantly getting unsolicited submissions from would-be writers. One day he receives a strange audiotape from Gavin Piercey, who turns out to be a vanity publisher's sales rep.
Gavin's played-back voice tells of a nasty incident which happened during his imprisonment for failure to pay child support, then he later calls into a radio talk show Felix appears on, to ask some pointed questions.
When the oily Gavin finally appears in person with the scatty, thirtyish Miriam Bowker, Felix is handed an official-looking envelope which contains a demand for £20,000 from the Parental Rights and Obligations Department (PROD). The bureaucrats want Felix to repay ten years of child support the welfare authorities have already paid Miriam.
Felix, it seems, has conceived a child (who's now a studious young lad called Ian) with Miriam a decade earlier at a Coldsands university beach party. For years, she thought Gavin was the dad, but when she finally got around to having a blood test done, he wasn't.
Felix simply can't remember whether he did the deed with Miriam or not. He ends up consulting a fatuous literary solicitor, Septimus Roache, who advises him to pay over the money; in his opinion, it would cost more to fight off the bureaucrats.
Then Gavin is found sitting in his salesman's van with his head bashed in. Suspicion focuses on Felix and finding the police on his doorstep at Coldsands, he flees, first seeking refuge with Miriam and Ian, then hiding out in the not-so-bleak "underworld" of London's homeless.
There, he's both befriended and betrayed by a variety of eccentric characters. He also learns the tactics of begging and street survival (for example, never eat the free curry handout offered by the Hare Krishnas-the posh restaurants routinely offer the homeless much better fare at their kitchen doorsteps).
All this takes place over the backdrop of London's book publishing trade, something Mortimer obviously knows very well. Felix is in love with his beautiful-but-sloppy publicist, Brenda Bodkin, and it's she who eventually does the leg work to solve the mystery of Gavin's death and get "her author" out of prison (the coppers eventually catch the fugitive Felix and he languishes in jail for weeks awaiting trial).
Along the way we meet the usual circus of eccentric Mortimer characters. There's Felix's idiot barrister "Chipless" Warrington, Q.C., who speaks "in the upper class drawl in use when Lord Curzon, whom he somewhat resembled, was Viceroy of India." Far from being from the upper classes, Warrington comes from modest origins, but has no "chip on his shoulder" about it; hence his nickname.
And we meet Detective Chief Inspector Elizabeth Cowling, the investigating policewoman who has a sideline in writing romance novels.
There's the neurotic Sandra Tantamount, who writes best-selling potboiler novels using a sex-and-games formula. She's got a book about snooker (In Off the Red), bridge (Grand Slam), and she's working on golf (Hole in One). In turns out her research for the steamy bits comes from her chats with an elderly vicar's wife.
Then there's Paul, Brenda Bodkin's Australian boyfriend, who looks "like a professional footballer but who's really a professor of English at a Queensland university." He too, has a novel to flog, The Budding Groves of Wagga Wagga.
Why oh why, I always, wonder, does a writer with Mortimer's obvious gifts always stoop to such cheap stereotyping of "colonials?" In one of the Rumpole stories, for example, Hilda's cousin from Saskatchewan is shown as a pretentious restaurant-hopping snob. But I've never met anyone from Saskatchewan who's like this-Toronto, maybe, but not Saskatoon or Regina.
I suspect the same easy joke is being made with Paul. I've never met an Australian like Paul-and, really, not all Australians are simple-minded, oversexed, sporty-types called Bruce and Sheila. Mortimer has obviously written Felix in the Underworld with a view to its ultimate television production; it'll doubtless be a mini-series on PBS soon, and that's put limitations on the book.
Everything's just a bit too neatly comic, and the plot which drives all the characters is just a bit too clever, with all its loose ends neatly tied up in time for the public television fund-raising campaign break.
But who cares? Most readers will probably suspend their disbelief in a slightly silly and unlikely plot, and tolerate the stereotypical characters created by their old friend John Mortimer. And, the book's not-so-neat ending is genuinely graceful, moving, and very well-written.
Michael Fitz-James is editor of Canadian Lawyer magazine.