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A Brilliant Tale of British Politics

11:00 PM, Mar 21, 1999 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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Well known for his social satire on British law and jurisprudence -- represented by his famous character Horace Rumpole, the crotchety barrister of the Old Bailey -- the novelist John Mortimer now ranks as one of Great Britain's premier mystery writers.

He also has, however, a flair for political tales, and his most popular creation has been Lord Leslie Titmuss, the beloved First Baron Skurfield. Titmuss -- a longtime Tory MP for Hartscombe and Worsfield South -- was Minister for Housing, Ecological Affairs and Planning (or HEAP) back in the Tories' glory days. He rose to great power in the Thatcher years, and his love for the Iron Lady remains intact.

Mortimer built Lord Titmuss in two previous novels, Paradise Postponed (1985) and Titmuss Regained (1990). Both books showed a complex man, well connected and well respected in Tory circles, revered and feared at the same time. And in The Sound of Trumpets, the newly published conclusion to the political trilogy, Mortimer surpasses even the expectations raised by his previous installments. For those of us who have been waiting, the book will stand as Mortimer's great triumph.

The Sound of Trumpets gives a different twist to political campaigning. After Titmuss retires and moves on to the House of Lords, he is replaced by a Tory, Peter Millichip. But when Millichip is found dead in his swimming pool, the victim of an apparent heart attack, a new by-election is called. And it's here, in the midst of the back-stabbing campaign, that the novel's fun begins.

The Tories choose former MP Tim Willock as their candidate. But when the local party chairman brings him along to meet the cagey Titmuss, he insultingly assumes that Titmuss will endorse him: The district had voted Tory for decades, and the added threat of the Labour party and its socialist policies should be plenty to turn the old man's stomach.

But how little Willock actually knows. For Titmuss is still furious at the Tories for their revolt against Thatcher. After meeting Willock -- who holds a weak position on the death penalty and admits to weakly supporting Thatcher's opposition during the coup -- Titmuss decides that he can't support the Tory candidate. And so he devises an incredible scheme to force the Tories back to their principles and, incidentally, to defeat Willock -- by giving advice and guidance to the young Labour candidate, Terry Flitton.

Mortimer introduces Flitton as a kind of Tony Blair clone, who, like the real prime minister, was born in a Tory household. But unlike Blair, Flitton has a history with the Young Socialists at the university and seems comfortable with the left-wing ranks of Labour. But he's also young and obviously impressionable, and just right for Titmuss to exploit.

In the first meeting between Titmuss and Flitton, the young Labourite is insecure and idealistic, the old Tory confident and conniving. Titmuss doesn't care if Flitton was a "Maoist Revisionist Anti-Rat Hunting Candidate for Free Love and Acupuncture," he just wants a winner. And he responds to Flitton's mild reminder of the difference between Tory and Labour with a wild flurry:

Are you suggesting that little traitor Willock, that damp, fawning, Europe-loving git whose true occupation is selling strings of onions off a French bicycle, that three-legged coward who stood with his dagger out during the assassination of the greatest Leader we ever had, his hand shaking and afraid to strike, that vacillating voice of the Prime Minister's movement for mediocrity, belongs to my party? I tell you this honestly, young man. . . . To call Timothy Willock a member of my Party is to throw mud in the face of Margaret Thatcher.

For Titmuss, politics is "simply about winning." Flitton counters by trying to defend his theory that politics "is about beliefs." But the elder statesman quickly browbeats the young politician with the claim that socialist ideals never put into practice are little more than "pure emotional self-indulgence." If Flitton really wants socialism, he not only has to beat Willock, but also has to avoid the word "socialism" from start to finish in his campaign. And so the Tory and the Labourite forge a strange and secret alliance as the race heats up and takes a series of unpredictable turns.