The Speaker’s Wife
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QUENTIN LETTS is a prolific journalist. He is both the Parliamentary sketch-writer and theatre critic of the Daily Mail. Both jobs require some wit, quick thinking, and fast writing. It is hard work, but Letts can do that, and write his first novel besides.
This is more like two novels, squeezed into 295 pages: one is a mildly farcical melodrama about Parliament; the other is about the knots the Church of England ties itself in, partly because of its failure to listen to the lessons of the Book of Common Prayer. (Mr Letts is also a deputy churchwarden in his Herefordshire parish.)
The Parliamentary thread describes an attempt by a celebrated TV atheist (based very loosely on you-know-who) in alliance with a cynical property dealer, and a corruptible politician — each perfectly credible. They intend to allow church properties, especially churches, to be converted into flats for the newly wealthy middle class.
The character who bridges the two themes is the Speaker’s Chaplain, a disappointed priest who finds consolation in the hip flask that he carries with him. He becomes involved in the riotous events set off by the quixotic decision of a young protégé to grant sanctuary in his church to a man on the run who has been accused of offending Muslims. It attracts a rent-a-crowd, and becomes a TV event.
In the theatre, Letts has seen enough Feydeau to understand how to put the pieces of a farce together. He is inspired by disgust at the avarice, lust, and hypocrisy of his characters. But they and the situations he involves them in do topple over each other rather. Sometimes it is hard to hard to know who is who. The Speaker’s wife? Her role remains a mystery.
Letts’s ambition and energy are enviable, but if he is interested in following in the footsteps of Anthony Trollope, he has some distance to travel.
Stephen Fay is a former member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times.