The Satsuma Complex – Bob Mortimer

After having one of 2021’s biggest-selling books with his autobiography, ‘And Away,’ Bob Mortimer’s first novel, The Satsuma Complex, comes out this week (October 27th) from Simon and Schuster.

I was lucky enough to see Bob on stage in conversation with Charlie Higson earlier this week, talking about the book. During the talk, he spoke at length about his craft, his writing style and the technical detail behind writing a novel. (All of this is, of course, untrue. In reality, he claimed he didn’t know whether the book was a crime novel or not, wouldn’t know how to give an elevator pitch on its content, and summed up his writing process to reduce guilt about spending 10 hours a day watching telly. (Even this detail was interrupted by thoughts as random as business opportunities for Sports Direct branching out into meat sales)

So, here’s my elevator pitch: The Satsuma Complex is a novel with the humour, honesty and occasional surrealness of his autobiography, featuring Gary (a fictionalised Bob at 30 years old) living a lonely life in London, looking for love, a missing acquaintance and good Battenburg cake.

Oh, and there’s a squirrel he has conversations with along the way.  

There have been many comedian-turn-crime-writers recently. An even more significant number of ‘celebrity novelists’. Cynical readers and writers will ask questions like:

Did they really write it? (Yes, it’s clearly written by him: it’s got Mortimer’s voice all over it as much as his autobiography had. He might claim ignorance of the genre, but it is as assured in its tone and structure as many crime novels I’ve read and is much better than certain other comedians’ efforts I’ve read this year.)

Would it have been published if it wasn’t by them? (Possibly: the question mark is not on the quality of writing, but merely the jackpot entailed: we accept the quirkiness in a way because we can picture Bob writing it (and, I’m assuming, providing narration for the audio version)

And even if it was published, would it get the promotion push from the publisher if it were a ‘regular’ first-time author? Of course not. Let’s not be naive. Publishing is a business, and profit is essential. But judging by his performance in conversation with Higson, I guarantee that Bob Mortimer will not be rocking up at Crime Festivals desperately proclaiming his ‘credentials’ as a ‘bona fide’ crime writer who has been working on this for most of his life. He’s not ‘poncey’ about it…and in some ways a PR dream; in other ways, I imagine a few Simon and Schuster bods were in the wings thinking, ‘” Please don’t say that….”

And thank god for that.

There are ‘Bobisms’ throughout the book – from early on imagining dogs called Zak Briefcase and Lengthy Parsnip to ‘banana petrol aftershave by Seb Longcoq’ to a cameo appearance in a pub from a John Bell, presumably arrived after a train-based conversation: an easter egg for fans, but not distracting for those unfamiliar with his social media posts…), and the many, many semi-surreal comments and observations throughout the book.

But it’s also a well-constructed mystery story that comes together sliver by sliver. And if it sounds patronising to seem surprised that is the case, it’s because Mortimer works hard to underplay himself in person (“I think the last 20% is ok…’ he’d deadpanned to Higson in the interview, who shrugged and conceded, ‘maybe 10%…’)

Despite the number of comedians who have tried their hand at it, I find very few writers: comedians or not, can do funny crime fiction. The humour either comes across as half-arsed routines they never took to stage that are out of step with the supposed tension of the book or just not that funny.

For every Colin Bateman (whose Mystery Man novels I’d say this is closest to in tone) or Carl Hiaasen that does write good, funny crime, there are a hundred efforts that don’t work.

This one did.

Plot-wise it’s relatively simple: dull boy meets mystery girl and finds himself involved in a dongle mystery, jealous exes, and questionable authority figures.

Yes, you may be hearing Bob in your head as you read it, and picturing him playing Gary in every move, thought, and insecurity, but you know what?

I  see that as a good thing.

Its simpleness, in writing and plot, is deceptive though: from the very first lines:

My name is Gary. I’m a thirty-year-old legal assistant with a firm of solicitors in London. I live by myself in a one-bedroom flat…

A writing checker would immediately tell you that’s three monotonous lines, and you should change it. But it’s the very simplicity that holds the charm – and sneaks up to deceive with some lovely lines:

To describe me as anonymous would be unfair, but to notice me other than in passing would be a rarity

And that’s not one example from somewhere deep in the book – that’s on page one.

Moreover, the way Mortimer introduces slight but well sketched characters who may or may not be more than they seem are introduced more subtly than many experienced crime authors manage it.

A bit like its author, there’s more going on in the book than you might first appreciate.

Rollercoaster is not the word – ‘book’ fits much better” is one of the blurb quotes on the back of the book.

Given that this quote comes from ‘Annette Kurtain’, you have to wonder about its authenticity…but unlike the blurbs I’ve seen on many celebrity novels this year from well-respected authors, I concur with this one, real or not.

The Satsuma Complex is a book – and a good, original comedy crime caper it is too.

Simon Bewick

Simon and Schuster, the publisher of this book, have a sponsored panel at Bay Tales Live 2023, held in Whitley Bay on March 4th. For more information and ticket information, you can click here.

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