Jane Gardam's new novel is the last part of a trilogy that started with tremendous critical success in Old Filth and continued with The Man in the Wooden Hat. New readers need have no fear; Last Friends stands up very well as an independent novel and the three books are not a continuous narrative, each examining the same events from the viewpoints of different characters.
We begin with the aged Sir Edward Feather QC ("Old Filth" is his nickname) and his last days in the Dorset village to which he and his old rival in court and in love, Sir Terence Veneering, have retired. The two men become partly reconciled but die within months of each other; first Veneering, in a punch-up when he takes a sentimental trip to Malta, then Feathers, alone on a journey "to the place of his birth, which he still called the Malay States".
His oldest friend, Dulcie, grande dame of the village, goes down to London for Filth's memorial service. An ancient solicitor, Fiscal-Smith, attaches himself to her; the abiding libidinous urges of the old at such occasions are beautifully caught.
The novel ingeniously intertwines Dulcie in her dotage and Veneering in his youth: a strange beginning for a great lawyer. Terry is born in 1927 on Teesside to a rough working-class woman and a stranded Russian circus acrobat called Venetski. He is lucky in his mixed genes and grows into a tall handsome youth, bilingual in Russian and English.
His intelligence is recognised by a headmaster, and after a near-miss in the torpedoing of the ship evacuating his school to Canada and near-poverty in postwar London, a chance meeting sets the young man on the way to glittering success. Meanwhile, Dulcie's pursuit by Fiscal-Smith continues through a series of blackly comic misadventures.
The title of the book is a wry take on the depopulated world of the very old. Gardam's style is witty and graceful, at times reminiscent of Muriel Spark. Let Dulcie have the last word, returning from a trip north to Veneering's roots. "Life," said Dulcie, south of Birmingham, "is really ridiculous. Why were we thought worth creating if we are such bloody fools?"