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like men betrayed

9 june 2022

One of the "C"s in the Guardian's list of 1,000 essential novels is John Mortimer's Charade (1947). My university library, I would find, does own Charade, but there was a copy of his Like Men Betrayed (1953) actually in the house, so I started with the later novel.

Much of Like Men Betrayed takes place in London, but another key setting is the imaginary village of Worsfold. Worsfold reminds me of Riseholme in E.F. Benson's Lucia novels, an impossibly ignorant and stultifying place – though Riseholme is full of cultural affectation, and Worsfold is full of gin and horses.

Though like Riseholme, Worsfold has its sympathetic inhabitants. Central to village life in Worsfold is Hester Hume-Monument, easy to deride for her copious drinking and general brain fog. But as the novel unfolds, we understand that her life has been torn apart by the wartime loss (under decidedly unheroic circumstances) of her son Gerry. Mrs. Hume-Monument makes life difficult for some of her relatives, who in turn are pretty appalling people, but she inspires sympathy among the more sympathetic of them, like her cousin Sandra, who plays a key role in the novel's denouement.

But the main characters in Like Men Betrayed are Christopher Kennet and his son Kit. The elder Kennet is a stodgy solicitor, unimaginative, set in his ways. You'd naturally dislike Kennet, except that by contrast, he appears as the most honest and perceptive character in the novel. Kennet is Mrs. Hume-Monument's financial advisor. Kit, in cahoots with a Cabinet member named Porcher and a crook named Katz, plots a crime for which he needs capital – and sees Mrs. Hume-Monument's life savings as a convenient source.

Much of the action of the novel involves Kit and his father wandering around London, with occasional dashes to Worsfold, but the two men rarely meet, and don't get along when they do. Kennet does not know about his son's embezzlement for quite a while, until it becomes hard to ignore; and then, his unpredictable reaction becomes the engine for the remainder of the plot.

Very well-drawn, in Like Men Betrayed, are Kennet's relationships: first his marriage to Kit's mother, a woman who has withdrawn into superficial cultural hobbies as surely as Kennet has withdrawn to his "deed boxes." And then, in quest of Kit, Kennet meets his son's landlady, Sylvia Urquhart, and is immediately attracted to her. Sylvia reciprocates the attraction. Her husband, another acidly-observed minor character, is a useless writer manqué who is clearly never going to write a page of his novel as all the work of their household falls on her. Kennet, she thinks, pays attention to her. But the old lawyer remains as hard to get to know, for his fellow characters, as he does to the reader.

The one disturbing note in Like Men Betrayed is its anti-Semitism. Kennet takes Sylvia to

Aldgate where the Jews, released by their faith from the observance of Sunday, packed the narrow streets selling clothes and gramophone records and pungent, fabulously expensive food. (118)
They walk among the "strutting, twittering collection of salesmen," one of whom offers Sylvia, as a sample, "a transparent slice of sausage" (118). This is gratuitous and not deeply woven into the novel's fabric, but it is telling: as if one detail that could help flesh out the disagreeableness of parts of London was a group of stereotypical Jews.

The other uncomfortable detail is Katz's name. I don't think that Katz is ever identified as Jewish, but he is coded as not quite English, as a hardened, greedy thief, as someone who has taken up profiteering in the wake of the second world war. Combined with the name, the implications are readable enough, if not underscored. It would have been so easy to name him Baker or Smith.

These are minor details in a novel that has many good qualities. But I would like to read more by John Mortimer, and I will stay on alert to see how far this prejudice goes.

Mortimer, John. Like Men Betrayed. 1953. New York: Penguin, 1990.