In appreciation of John Mortimer
If the phrase "She who must be obeyed" brings an immediate smile of recognition to your lips you are probably, like me, a fan of John Mortimer. The British author passed away yesterday at his home outside London the age of 85.
Mortimer had two starring roles in life: as both a lawyer and a writer. Mortimer's literary output was prodigious – including books, screen and stage plays, radio and TV dramas – but he will be best remembered for Horace Rumpole, the crusty British barrister whose fans followed him for years through dozens of books, short stories, and TV episodes.
Rumpole loved cigars, wine, poetry, and cases that looked impossible. His specialty was providing defense for the underdog – often a denizen of a low-life criminal world that seemed oceans apart from the upper-middle-class respectability of Rumpole's domestic life.
Mortimer's own legal career (he worked in the British court system starting in the 1940s and handled some high-profile cases, including defending the publisher of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" against obscenity charges in the 1960s) informed the Rumpole stories, as did Mortimer's love of the law.
Although fearless in court, Rumpole generally cowered at home when confronted by his wife ("She who must be obeyed") and the combination of wit, wisdom, and wry poignance in which Mortimer wrapped the Rumpole stories kept readers ever eager for the next.
Rumpole's longevity was impressive. The first Rumpole book, "Rumpole of the Bailey," appeared in 1978. Rumpole went on to appear in at least 20 more books (not counting several omnibus editions.) Mortimer's last Rumpole title, "The Antisocial Behaviour of Horace Rumpole," was published last year.
Rumpole, however, was only one of many creative successes for Mortimer. His novels included the "Titmuss" trilogy, a class drama about Leslie Titmuss, an ambitious British politician in the era of Margaret Thatcher. Like the Rumpole stories, "Timuss" was very successfully adapted for a TV series.
Mortimer wrote "A Voyage Round My Father," a play based on his relationship with his father who was also a lawyer. "A Voyage Round My Father" was adapted for TV movie starring Alan Bates and Laurence Olivier in 1981.
In addition, Mortimer adapted John Fowles's novel "The Ebony Tower" for film and wrote the script, based on the autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, for the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini. Starting in 2004, he also worked as a consultant for the TV show "Boston Legal."
But for many fans, Mortimer's name was synonymous with that of Rumpole and for them, after decades of such generous access, it will be hard to accept that the door has finally shut on Rumpole.