Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe (1973)

The sequel to Riotous Assembly, the second (and last) of Sharpe’s ‘Piemburg’ novels, Indecent Exposure is also (loosely) based on the author’s time in South Africa (1951-61) and features the three catastrophically clottish policemen from the first novel: Kommandant van Heerden, LuitenantVerkramp and Konstabel Els.

The Kommandant, continuing his obsession with all things English, meets a flirtatious middle-aged English woman at the local golf club. She is Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon, wife of Colonel Heathcote-Kilkoon, they live at a big house outside the town of Weezen with a Major Bloxham, nickname ‘Boy’. They are, in fact frauds, chancers from South London who won the Pools and came out to Kenya where they reinvented themselves among the snobs of Happy Valley. Booted out of paradise by the Mau Mau rebellion, they have come to practice English snobbery in apartheid South Africa where they have set up a Dornford Yates fan club and have parties where they re-enact episodes from that author’s novels of posh 1920s society. Hence the house’s name, White Ladies, based on the house of the same name in Yates’s ‘Berry’ novels.

Attracted to the Kommandant’s coarse brutishness, Mrs H-K invites him to come and stay – which is downgraded to an invitation to stay at the local hotel by the worried Colonel who doesn’t like boorish Boers – and this leads to a classic cock-up when the Kommandant arrives in Weezen armed with a load of English clothes, jackets, ties etc, and a book of etiquette, only to be directed by unhelpful locals to what they insist is the only hotel in town but is in fact a health spa, stinking of sulphurous water, inhabited by whispering old ladies. After a series of misunderstandings, Mrs H-K finally tracks the Kommandant down and invites him to a posh English dinner party where he misunderstands everything that is said to him and takes offence at the rather camp and fey atmosphere.

There is a fabulous scene where Mrs H-K encourages the Kommandant to come fox hunting with the local Hunt and, when the Kommandant falls badly from the mad horse the Colonel has deliberately given him (infuriated by his Boer crudeness), the Kommandant is carried into a dark copse where he is tended a little too intimately by Mrs H-K. She is quickly naked except for her riding hat and crop and straddling the Kommandant in a very compromising way, when with a hullaballoo the hounds come bursting into the clearing and swarm all over the prostate Kommandant and around the naked Englishwoman, closely followed by the Colonel and ‘Boy’ and their guests. Luckily the Kommandant is invisible under the howling hounds and Mrs H-K displays the legendary British sang-froid: When her husband shouts, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ she roars back, ‘I am having a shit‘ and the men retire in chastened confusion…

But this, the bogus posh English circle, is the minor strand in the story. The main action is what happens in Piemburg in the Kommandant’s absence, having left his over-zealous and none-too-bright subordinate, Luitenant Verkramp, in charge. He immediately implements two long-standing ambitions of his:

  1. To put an end to inter-racial relations on the part of his men ie to stop them screwing black women, he puts into practice a theory he learned from the over-zealous and oversexed lady psychiatrist at the Piemburg prison, Dr von Blimenstein, viz. he has cohorts of policemen put in strait-jackets, their penises wired up to electrodes and shown slides of naked black women projected on the wall. Each new slide prompts a horrific electric shock. (Sharpe’s fiction is not subtle and not for the faint-hearted.) Grotesque as this sounds, the outcome is even more gruesome for the several hundred constables turn out to be put off not just black women, but all women, and become camp homosexuals – big South African rugby-playing cops reporting for duty wearing loud lipstick and garish wigs!
  2. Verkramp’s second plan is to flush out the communist subversives who must be causing all the unrest among the blacks (what other reason could there be?). He calls in a dozen secret policemen from out of town and tasks them with tracking down the secret communist cells and working their way into them, committing some limited acts of terrorism, if necessary, to back up their cover stories. The result is the secret agents – none of whom know about the others – end up infiltrating each other’s little set-ups, committing ever more egregious acts of violence in a bid to prove their seriousness and penetrate the heart of subversive organisations which don’t, in fact, exist.  Thus, the secret agents are responsible for blowing up the power station, the radio station, the town sewage works and much more, plunging Piemburg into anarchy. Things come to a head when two secret policemen, each convinced the other is a communist subversive, meet in the Piemburg zoo and conceive the bright idea of sowing panic by placing gelignite attached to timers inside condoms and getting the zoo’s ostriches to eat them, then letting them loose. This, after much embarrassment about buying the condoms etc, they manage to do, but the released ostriches turn out to be very affectionate creatures and instead of running off into the town at random, decide to follow the secret agents who’ve given them the nice meals, who start panicking as the timers inside the birds tick down to their explosive climaxes.

Eventually, the Kommandant is contacted and told about the mayhem going on his absence. Verkramp has finally realised all these nightmarish incidents are his fault, and has contacted all his agents and paid them to leave town. Van Heerden returns to deal with the knotty problem of finding a group of white men (the agents were seen by witnesses at some of the explosions) who can be blamed for all the mayhem… until Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon learns of his problem and suggests… the pompous Britishers of the Dornford Yates club! Yes, they offended the Kommandant with their lofty superiority and now he can get his revenge!

Which leads to the novel’s violent climax as various police agencies approach the unwitting home of the good Colonel and Major, in the midst of holding another gay and frivolous party, when suddenly shooting breaks out, the Britishers respond, and the whole thing comes to a fiery climax when the reliably psychopathic Konstabel Els floods the cellar of their mansion with petrol and throws in a match. Whoompf.

Slowly Piemburg is restored to normal. The terrorists all appear to have died in the inferno. The memory of the exploding ostriches dies away. Luitenant Verkramp is hypnotised by the large and fearsome lady psychiatrist, Dr von Blimenstein, into marrying him and Kommandant van Heerden adopts one of the habits he learned from the Yates society, fox hunting, having rescued their pack of bloodhounds and now regularly ties a bag of aniseed to a black prisoner, giving him a five minute head-start, and then – Tally Ho!

Civilisation – South Africa-style – has been restored.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (eg naked Mrs Heathcote-Kilgore straddling the Kommandant and surrounded by baying hounds – the red face of the Kommandant she’s straddling is to the left oof her thigh, with a hound’s foot in his mouth; the row of South African police with their penises attached to electrodes watching projected image of naked black women; the big woman in pink on the front is the voracious psychiatrist Dr von Blimenstein, waiting to seduce the (typically for Sharpe) skinny, scared male, Luitenant Verkramp, cowering just behind her buttock).

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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1 Comment

  1. Praveen Narayanan

     /  December 12, 2019

    An excellent audio version of this book by a fellow called Simon Callow exists on YouTube.


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