Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer

51eBBUd71BL A few years ago at some function or other I met an old buffer whose Italian holiday home was, he said, used as the basis for Summer’s Lease. The author John Mortimer had rented it with his family and was ‘terribly snippy’ about the place in print, criticising my black-tied, slightly drunk new friend’s choice of reading matter amongst other things. Alas, it would seem the poor villa owner (he spent a long time, as toffs often do, telling me how poor he was) had confused fact and fiction. What Mortimer says about the books in ‘La Felicita’, the Tuscan pile Molly Pargeter has rented for three weeks in August, is this: ‘S. Kettering was either a particularly serious-minded chap or anxious to show off to his tenants.’ This is what we call ‘making things up’ and writers of novels do it all the time. S. Kettering’s books are indeed all serious (art, travel, cuisine), with nothing so brash as a detective story on show – but it’s a key element in Mortimer’s creation of mood and not a personal insult: Molly is intrigued by everything about Kettering, from the strict instructions she has been left on where the family should eat dinner, the fact that the owner specifically wanted a couple in their forties with three girls as tenants, and so on. The more she uncovers, the more Molly comes to see that everyone she meets in Chiantishire, from William Fosdyke, the affable ‘Mr Fixit’ to the glacial Baroness Dulcibene, is hiding something. She may even be right. Mortimer is an evocative writer: while Molly sleuths and her family bickers, we can smell the herbs on the terrace and feel the afternoon heat. As if that wasn’t enough, we have Haverford Downs (played by John Gielgud in the BBC adaptation), seventysomething writer and father of Molly, whose presence is an embarrassment for the family and pure pleasure for us: he talks non-stop about his ancient sexual conquests, is relentlessly self-interested and very funny. Summer’s Lease is several things: an amusing family holiday story, an ex-pat comedy of manners, a slight but neatly-constructed mystery yarn – and it is also that relatively rare thing: a book you don’t really want to end.


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