Profiting from his mother’s contacts with the government’s documentary film director, an educated, sensitive, and altogether naive young man joins the government’s Action Film Unit on location at an English beach resort. Its crew is filming a story about military training which is intended to boost civilian morale in the pre-invasion days of World War II.
Writing in the first person, the young man, unnamed throughout, is regarded with various combinations of scorn, malice, rivalry, and cupidity by the production’s eccentric personnel. The subject of the filming is a nearby army encampment preparing for its role in the Normandy Channel crossing. The young man soon falls in with the intrigue and gossip surrounding the civilian and military enclaves. He establishes a friendly relationship with the director’s pretty, young, actress wife. Together, they investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a sergeant who has fallen onto the rocks below during the filming of a cliff-scaling episode. The dead man had been widely disliked, and neither soldiers nor film people seem inclined to scrutinize the disaster in any detail.
When the director chooses to capitalize on this accident by fictionalizing the context and rewriting its consequences, the narrator is disillusioned by such radical departures from notions of documentary integrity. As he gradually realizes what forces actually motivate his new acquaintances, the young man begins to undertake a long, personal journey toward maturity.
John Mortimer is best known in this country as the author of Public Television’s RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY and PARADISE POSTPONED series, all originally executed as novels. CHARADE was his first book, appearing in 1947, but published in the United States for the first time now. Its style follows a rather subtle progression, starting with a farcical tone reminiscent of a comic writer such as Kingsley Amis. As matters turn increasingly serious and the narrator begins to lose his self-protective distancing, innocent irony is discarded in favor of a more somber series of candid reflections. Perhaps the writer’s ultimate discovery is that his relations to the events he described have been less important than he ever imagined.