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Authors: John Mortimer

Felix in the Underworld

BOOK: Felix in the Underworld
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John Mortimer


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.

Published by arrangement with the Author

Epub ISBN 9781471302299

Copyright © Advanpress Ltd, 1997

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

All rights reserved

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental

Jacket illustration ©


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28


‘An unsettling, continuously entertaining novel'
Sunday Telegraph

‘A novel about change, both personal and national ... As a murder mystery,
Felix in the Underworld
displays some wily plotting but its analysis of modern times is its most charming attraction'
Sunday Times

‘The plot is intricate, but its movement is swift, with enough clues dropped ... to keep the reader hungry without giving it all away'

‘John Mortimer's writing is fluent, gently humorous, and possesses the comic's virtue, tact'
The Times Literary Supplement

‘A bizarre and deliciously quirky black comedy'


John Mortimer is a playwright, novelist and former practising barrister. During the war he worked with the Crown Film Unit and published a number of novels, before turning to theatre. He has written many film scripts, and plays for both radio and television, including
A Voyage Round My Father
, the Rumpole plays, which won him the British Academy Writer of the Year Award, and the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's
Brideshead Revisited

John Mortimer lives with his wife and their youngest daughter in what was once his father's house in the Chilterns.

For Emily and Rosie

Facilis descensus Avemo:

Noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;

Sed revocare gradum superasque evadare ad auras, 

Hoc opus, hic labor est.

Light is the descent to Avernus!

Night and day the portals of gloomy Dis stand wide:

But to recall thy step and issue to the upper air 

– There is the toil and there the task!

VI, 126

Chapter One

The voice said: ‘They told me to get in the motor. I would describe their manner as peremptory. They were hostile. You might say unpleasant. They alleged I had given rise to a whole mountain of paperwork and wasted time they might have spent on ODC, which one of them translated as Ordinary Decent Crime and laughed unpleasantly. I told them frankly I had little or no idea what they were talking about.'

Felix Morsom wasn't paying attention. He was staring at a long sheet of paper, hoping to fill it with his neat, handwritten words. Writing had never been the difficulty but stories now came to him as rarely and unexpectedly as sex. The voice from his elaborate sound system was an unnoticed accompaniment, like the distant murmuring of the sea. It continued: ‘At the station my request for legal advice and assistance was met with laughter and a question from the smaller one who was dressed casual: “What've you got against kids?” I said I had nothing against kids. At least, nothing in particular. Then I was banged up without further ceremony.'

Then it occurred to Felix that he was no longer listening to Mahler's
Des Knaben Wunderhorn

‘The police cell was by no means spacious and a great deal of room in it was taken up by a man wearing a crumpled blue suit and a number of heavy rings. One of them I noticed was a sphinx's head which might have come into use as a knuckleduster. I do not exaggerate when I say that he smelt like a bar parlour on the morning after. I noticed in particular that his hands were not clean and his fingernails were what my mother used to call “in mourning for the cat's mother”. By this time I was in considerable distress and I asked if he objected to my making use of the inadequate toilet facilities provided. His words to me, spoken in a slurred voice, were, “Be my guest, sunshine.'”

Felix was not writing. A large part of his day, when he came to think of it, was spent not writing. He was looking at the objects on his desk and admiring their neatness. He couldn't start work until the metal duck which contained his paper-clips was directly in front of the clock presented to him by the public libraries of Sussex, until the framed photograph of Chekhov was properly aligned with the glass paperweight with its view of the old Coldsands, until a small plaster model of a sailor, roughly painted and constantly breaking and having to be mended with Uhu, was in its place in the centre of these nick-nacks. He bit the end of his pen and looked out over the sullen, gunmetal sea. He had been full of confidence when he woke up but now ideas seemed to drain away as the waves are sucked back across the pebbles. With nothing else to think about he could hear the voice more clearly.

‘It was while I was relieving myself that my cell mate approached, pulled down my clothing and bent me over the toilet. The next thing I was aware of was a sharp pain in my rear passage and a feeling of resentment.'

Bloody wireless! Felix thought. Nothing on it, from morning till night, except people suffering from various complaints: ‘Me and my erysipelas', ‘How I faced colostomy'. The halt, the aurally challenged, the sexually abused, the partially sighted, and those who had undergone unfair dismissal and false, or perhaps not so false, imprisonment were queuing up at the studio doors. Pale, deprived and sinned-against figures were cramming into the lift and being escorted down the endless corridors of Broadcasting House to flood the airwaves with their quiet, deliberately uncomplaining voices. The trouble with his Orpheus digital sound system, bought with the advance from the novel which was ebbing away from his mind, was that the controls were only labelled with symbols: here an arrow, there a triangle, in another place a couple of mysterious dots. He thought he had pressed the CD button and his first chapter would be coloured by sounds of unearthly beauty, music scarcely heard on land or sea. He had clearly touched the wrong nipple and got Radio Moanalot. He squatted to inspect the device more closely. He pressed the button which he believed silenced the radio but the voice spoke to him again.

‘After the incident described above my cell mate started a conversation on the subject of the ordination of women priests saying that the “dog-collared bitches” should be burned at the stake. I was unable to join in owing to embarrassment, and it's no exaggeration to say that I passed a sleepless night. Owing to various pressures I will have to sign off now. When my story is complete, I just hope you will understand the responsibility you bear for all that happened to me.'

Behind a small window of smoked glass Felix now noticed that wheels were turning. What he had set in motion was a tape. ‘I shall watch your future career with interest,' the tape said, and then fell silent.

Chekhov is lolling on the steps of a verandah. He is wearing a peaked cap and a long overcoat buttoned to his neck, with its collar up round his ears. He has clear, sharp features and his eyes are half closed, not from weariness but to focus on the world more clearly, for he is not wearing his usual pince-nez. His legs are crossed. His left hand holds a crook-handled walking-stick as though it were a long pen. His right arm is round a floppy-eared dog, which snuggles against him, no doubt for warmth.

Felix looked at the photograph on his desk with envy. When he wrote his first novel he had been called, by one reviewer, ‘the Chekhov of Coldsands' and had never been quite sure if this were intended as a joke. He envied the man on the verandah steps not because Chekhov had genius, instead of a certain talent, but because he was a doctor and Felix would always have turned his eyes away from suppurating sores and retreated from evil-smelling bedclothes and sour underwear. He kept the photograph on his desk, among the shells and the curiously coloured stones picked up on the beach, because he had been pleased by the review, which had described his world as one of ‘rain-soaked promenades and white paint flaking off the doors of seaside boarding-houses, of dogs shitting on windswept shingle, dried seaweed, tapped barometers and frustrated middle-class lives'. There are things that you and I understand, Felix communicated silently with the picture of the writer leaning back on the verandah steps (plenty of white paint and an ancient wicker chair). Then he wondered how Chekhov would have reacted to the unexpected tape that had spoken to him when, thinking he was about to receive a poignant dose of Gustav Mahler, he had pressed the wrong nipple.

The tape, when he got it out and examined it, played on one side only. There was nothing written on it, no label, no hint of its origin. Although his approach to all machines was tentative, he wound it back to the few sentences which had been spoken while his thoughts were elsewhere. There was a slight hissing noise and then the voice started again with no preamble. ‘What happened to me came out of a clear blue sky, although, truth to tell, it was overcast at the time. I had got home from work and noticed an unmarked car waiting in the road in front of my address. I had my latchkey out and ready when they spoke. They told me to get in the motor. I would describe their manner as peremptory. They were hostile. You might say unpleasant.' It was during this action replay that the telephone rang.

‘Felix? Hi! It's Brenda.'

‘Brenda Bodkin?' He usually asked this, although he knew the answer perfectly well.

‘The very one. You all set for tomorrow?'

‘Absolutely.' He switched off the tape which was now repeating itself in a way he no longer found interesting.

‘Gravesend, London, Winchester and Bath,' Brenda reminded him.

‘It sounds marvellous.' It did, to Felix.

‘Oh, and I've had Denny Densher's office on. They want you desperately for “Good Morning, Thames Estuary”.'

‘It still sounds OK.'

‘Denny wants you for seven thirty. I'm getting Terry, the rep, to drive us. Could you be ready by six?'

‘Without the slightest difficulty.'

‘That's great. All your fans will be waiting for you.' And Ms Bodkin rang off.

Left alone Felix thought about his fans, a diminishing and ageing group, well scattered. Letters would come in spidery handwriting, written on thin paper, from Canada, New Zealand, Birmingham or, occasionally, Japan, asking for a signature, a photograph or, if his luck were out, heralding the arrival of a bulky manuscript to be submitted for his opinion. Sometimes there were presents: a sprig of heather, a snap of an unknown family in an unvisited garden, perhaps a slice of cake wrapped in silver foil, once a packet of contraceptives marked ‘To my literary sperm-bag from Carol Jenks of Cape Town'. He had dropped them wistfully into the waste-paper basket but sent back his usual letter: ‘Your kind appreciation of my work gave me enormous pleasure.' Quite often people sent him tapes.

He was burrowing in a wooden box which had once contained wine sent by his publisher when a Morsom novel touched the list of bestsellers. Now it was the depository for unanswered, unanswerable letters. Then he found what he was looking for, a Jiffy bag with the covering note in it, uncertainly typed, unsigned and short: ‘I have read every word you have written and always admired your character-drawing and subtle technique. I am wondering if the story I have put on tape for convenient listening would be of interest. Does it seem to you to have television possibilities? Yours truly, An Admirer. '

Felix felt an unusual lift in his spirits. Looking out over the rooftops he saw a crack in the ceiling of grey cloud through which a shaft of sunlight fell and glittered on the sea. The trip he was about to take with Brenda Bodkin should bring him as near to happiness as he got these days. And the tape which had seemed threatening when he heard it was no more than an idea for television; he could dismiss all its unpleasant details from his mind.

BOOK: Felix in the Underworld
10.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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