These are companion novels to Old Filth, which I read years ago. The Man in the Wooden Hat is written from the perspective of Old Filth’s wife, Betty.
Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) is a successful lawyer when he marries Elisabeth in Hong Kong soon after the War. Reserved, immaculate and courteous, Filth finds it hard to demonstrate his emotions. But Elisabeth is different – a free spirit. She was brought up in the Japanese Internment Camps, which killed both her parents but left her with a lust for survival and an affinity with the Far East. No wonder she is attracted to Filth’s hated rival at the Bar – the brash, forceful Veneering. Veneering has a Chinese wife and an adored son – and no difficulty whatsoever in demonstrating his emotions . . .
How Elisabeth turns into Betty and whether she remains loyal to stolid Filth or is swept up by caddish Veneering, makes for a page-turning plot in a perfect novel which is full of surprises and revelations, as well as the humour and eccentricities for which Jane Gardam’s writing is famous.
I suppose you could read this book without reading Old Filth first, but it certainly helps to know what happens in the first book from the husband’s point of view. Both books follow the lives of husband and wife over 50 years, but as The Man in the Wooden Hat is told from Betty’s point of view I got a totally different view of events, particularly of the couple’s relationship with Old Filth’s arch rival in Hong Kong, fellow lawyer Terry Veneering.
Last Friends revisits the same events telling Terry Veneering’s story from Dulcie Williams’ perspective. Dulcie is the widow of “Pastry Willy” Williams, a judge who was also in the foreign service with Old Filth and Veneering. She provides the back stories of these characters, and throws yet more light on the events told in the first two books.
Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat told with bristling tenderness and black humour the stories of that Titan of the Hong Kong law courts, Old Filth QC, and his clever, misunderstood wife Betty. Last Friends, the final volume of this trilogy, picks up with Terence Veneering, Filth’s great rival in work and – though it was never spoken of – in love.
Veneering’s were not the usual beginnings of an establishment silk: the son of a Russian acrobat marooned in northeast England and a devoted local girl, he escapes the war to emerge in the Far East as a man of panache, success and fame. But, always, at the stuffy English Bar he is treated with suspicion: where did this blond, louche, brilliant Slav come from?
Veneering, Filth and their friends tell a tale of love, friendship, grace, the bittersweet experiences of a now-forgotten Empire and the disappointments and consolations of age.
The three books together form a memorable trilogy, of love and life, humour and heartbreak in colonial Hong Kong and the contrasting setting of the English countryside. Maybe Old Filth is the outstanding book, but maybe that is because I read it first and loved it so much, that the others don’t quite live up to it.
I’ve had both these books for a couple of years, so both qualify for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, and The Man in the Wooden Hat for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge and the Colour Coded Challenge (the dominant colour of the cover is white) too.