“An offbeat romantic thriller, as if Salvador Dali scripted a Hitchcock film… It’s as a comic novel that the book is most memorable. It contains the funniest description of somebody having a bath that you’re ever likely to read… But there is genuine tension at times, and I came to believe in and care about the central characters. More than just a tour of the wonderfully weird mind of Mortimer, it works – for the most part – as a novel.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Whether it’s with long-time comedy partner Vic Reeves, his outlandish tales on Would I Lie to You?, or his angling adventures in Gone Fishing, Bob Mortimer has been making us laugh for decades, and his memoir And Away… was critically acclaimed upon its release in 2021. Those of us who enjoyed reading of Mortimer’s misadventures will no doubt have been pleased to learn that the comedian was following it up with a novel, though some may have been a little surprised to find that it’s a crime novel, and may well be found on the shelf with titles such as Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Those who adore Bob’s cuddly, absurdist humour shouldn’t fret, The Satsuma Complex may include guns, murder, mysterious women and many of the usual trappings of the crime genre but, filtered through Mortimer’s unique style of comedy, the end product is a crime novel that’s a thrilling page-turner injected with the warm humour you’d expect from its author.
Anyone who’s read Mortimer’s memoir will immediately recognise the protagonist is loosely based on Bob himself. Gary is in his early 30s, lives in London, works as a solicitor, and uses his overactive imagination to inject a bit of colour into his otherwise rather beige life, namely by having imaginary conversations with a no-nonsense squirrel who lives close by. Gary’s life is quickly turned upside down when, one night, he meets a mysterious and beautiful young woman and soon after learns that an old colleague with a fondness for novelty socks has vanished only hours after giving Gary a USB stick in the shape of a corncob. It’s not long before Gary finds himself way out of his depth, fighting to stay ahead of gangsters, corrupt police, private investigators, and a woman he’s fallen for but certainly can’t trust, not to mention a very judgemental squirrel.
At a glance, it could be assumed that Mortimer has fallen for all the usual cliches of a crime novel; the main tropes are indeed all present, and yet, filtered through Bob’s slightly off-the-wall humour, readers will find themselves in a murder mystery that feels refreshingly new. After all, when was the last time Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple reviewed their case with a personified squirrel? While Mortimer’s sense of fun is certainly enough to get your attention, it’s his wonderful cast of characters that will make sure you stick around. Gary may be a bit of an every man, the people around him are beautifully brought to life, and I genuinely found myself invested to the very end, hoping that those who come to aid Gary in his quest for the truth would themselves get a happy ending. The back and forth banter Gary develops with his retired neighbour, Grace, and her laconic dog Lasso was particularly fun, and Grace went from a character that readers may initially feel cold to, to one they genuinely wish they could be neighbours with.
It came as no surprise that a beloved comedian like Mortimer could write funny, warm characters, but he’s equally skilled at writing the sort of people you really wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of, perhaps the sort of people he encountered from time to time in during his pre-showbiz career as a solicitor. With his insider knowledge of the law and its legal system, Mortimer is able to craft a story that, when it’s not being thoroughly amusing, shines a light on the flaws in criminal justice, reminding us that, for some, the police can be as equally intimidating as any gang. Make no mistake, this isn’t designed to be a gritty, hard-hitting critique of the justice system, but there are a few sharp lines here and there that reflect the current turbulent climate we live in, and one can only imagine what Mortimer might have to say were he to take the gloves off.
While the banter Gary exchanges with many of the characters he encounters is comedy enough, I particularly enjoyed the aforementioned conversations he has with a local squirrel, who acts as a sort of sounding board as our protagonist tries to gather his thoughts and decide on his next move. Despite their chats being a figment of his imagination, the squirrel is largely unimpressed by Gary’s attempts at playing detective, and one could argue the true hero of the tale is our furry friend, who personifies Gary’s subconscious as he attempts to figure out exactly what’s going on. Their contestations are a highlight of an already excellent book, and one interaction ends with the fluffy-tailed rodent trying to convince Gary to re-assess his next move, saying: “I would think around that decision a bit deeper than you obviously have”.
The Satsuma Complex may not reinvent the crime genre, but it certainly feels like a breath of fresh air in an area that that been inundated with bland new additions for centuries. If you enjoy a good thriller, but are growing tired of grizzled detectives, poorly written femme fatales, and twists you can spot a mile off, then Mortimer’s novel is likely for you, not bad at all for his first foray into the genre. If you’re already a fan, and are eager for a little more Bob in your life, then this is absolutely for you, and no doubt crime fiction fans will be hoping for a second instalment.
Added 5th December 2022