Brian Jessel, a loyal civil servant, is content with his monotonous job, which shelters him from much that is going on around him. In his job, he deals with such unexciting subjects as the Annual Assessment of Departmental Efficiency and the Treasury Overview Meeting. This routine is disturbed when Jessel is assigned to investigate the mysterious death-by-falling of another civil servant, Stephen Summerchild, fifteen years earlier. A television news station has reopened the investigation of the death, and the government fears a political scandal. There are rumors of Russian espionage and traded state secrets.
As Jessel investigates further, he discovers the involvement of Dr. Elizabeth Serafin, an Oxford philosophy professor originally from Russia, who was to serve with Summerchild on a Strategy Unit to study “the quality of life.” Summerchild and Serafin, both unhappily married and lonely, fell in love. Their meeting place was a garret in a downtown London British Ministry building. Jessel, investigating the circumstances of Summerchild’s death, discovers tape recordings, memos, and transcripts of their taped discussions. Proper civil servant that he is, Jessel is shocked at first when he discovers the passionate relationship between the two, but then he begins to envy them for the love they shared and to regret his own solitary existence. He does not reveal to anyone the nature of the relationship between Summerchild and Serafin and recommends that the files on the case be destroyed.
This is a tender civil service comedy with touches of absurd humor; by the time the point of absurdity has been reached, the reader is so caught up with sympathy for the characters that the unbelievability of the events is disregarded. Frayn pokes gentle fun at the type of totally dedicated, obsessive civil servant who is so concerned with following rules that all pleasure and emotion is absent from his life.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. February 2, 1992, XIV, p. 6.
London Review of Books. XIII, September 12, 1991, p. 15.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 16, 1992, p. 3.
New Statesman and Society. IV, September 13, 1991, p. 39.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, May 14, 1992, p. 41.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 10.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 13, 1991, p. 21.
The Wall Street Journal. January 20, 1992, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, February 2, 1992, p. 1.