Friday, January 16, 2009

The Man Dies, the Humor Lives On

This is not shaping up to be a good year for crime and mystery novelists. We’re only halfway through January, and already two of this genre’s best-known contributors have gone to their graves. First, of course, was American Donald E. Westlake, who died on New Year’s Eve. Now comes British barrister-turned-novelist John Mortimer, whose series character, Horace Rumpole, has appeared in more than two dozen books and was so ably brought to the small screen by actor Leo McKern in Rumpole of the Bailey. As The Guardian’s Alison Flood writes:
Rumpole of the Bailey creator John Mortimer, 85, died this morning following a prolonged illness. His family said in a statement that they were by his side when he passed away.

Mortimer, who lived in what was formerly his father’s house in the Chilterns, had been in a London hospital until a few days before Christmas before coming home, after which his condition deteriorated, said Tony Lacey, Mortimer’s editor at Penguin. ...

The author--who would start writing at around 5am, regularly having a glass of champagne first thing in the morning--said that “No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous”. “Dying,” he opined, "”is a matter of slapstick and prat falls”.

“Even though he was so ill, there was still a great sense of shock when I learned of his death--at some level he seemed indestructible. He was always fantastically upbeat and funny, full of stories--but there was a measure of self-doubt there, underneath all the charm and confidence, about his literary status and how he would finally be seen,” Tony Lacey, his editor of many years at Penguin books said. “He was forever asking ‘how am I doing? Is it time for me to give up?’”
Sarah Weinman notes that “The news comes just a day after the Strand Magazine announced Mortimer was the recipient of the first Strand Critics Lifetime Achievement Award. ‘I feel honoured to be chosen to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of Horace Rumpole,’ Mortimer said in a statement Wednesday. “He is, of course, a truly British character and I am delighted that he has come to be appreciated so much by his American cousins.’”

No doubt about that.

READ MORE:Sir John Mortimer, R.I.P.,” by Martin Edwards (Do You Write Under Your Own Name?); “Rumpole’s Creator Mortimer Dies” (BBC News); “John Mortimer, Barrister and Writer Who Created Rumpole, Dies at 85,” by Helen T. Verongos (The New York Times).


Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, man. First Westlake, now Mortimer.

Yes, I know Mortimer did lots of other things. He was a lawyer and a novelist, a gadfly and a warrior of the literary trenches, a man of letters and a bit of a rake, perhaps. But to me and millions of others he'll always be simply the man who created Horace Rumpole.

Anyone who thinks literature is somehow inherently superior on some intellectual level to television has never really watched an episode of RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY, one of the cleverest, most literate and most sustained lancings of society's boils to ever come from the ranks of crime fiction. In ANY medium.

That most of those scripts were eventually -- and quite successfully -- turned into prose stories and novels by Mortimer is practically moot.

It's just too bad too many American's unease with and/or aversion to British accents and customs prevented this PBS staple from reaching a larger audience, because there have been damn few crime shows to have ever maintained the level of quality Mortimer achieved with RUMPOLE, on television and later (after the death of beloved character actor Leo McKern) in print.

Hypocrisy, class and racial prejudice, the insufferable smugness of the powerful, the human-sized holes in the legal system, the nature of "justice," and even the on-going tug of war between the sexes-- all were pierced, time and again, by Mortimer's scathing but somehow gentle wit.

There was rarely any sign of mean spiritedness about the Rumpole series. For all their faults and foibles, there was an obvious, almost Wodehouse-like fondness on Mortimer's part for Horace, Hilda, Guthrie, Old Tom et al; for all those endearingly flawed miscreants who populated the Old Bailey.

Which is without a doubt one major reason I and countless others were drawn back again and again to that world. Sure, we could empathize and even sympathize with the various trials and tribulations, both personal and professional, of one old Bailey hack, but it was Mortimer's genius and obvious affection for his characters that drew us back.

Perry Mason? LA Law? Damages? Grisham's latest attorney-in-peril? Pheh!

All better, smarter lawyers, perhaps, but who would you rather spend a long lunch hour at Pomeroy's Wine Bar with?

So please, for those of you lucky enough to have had the pleasure of having encountered Mr. Rumpole over the years, let's all raise a glass of Chateau Thames Embankment, light up a short, smelly cigar and toast his creator, He Who Will Be Missed.

Sloane said...

We shall certainly raise a glass to Sir John Mortimer this day. And to Horace and Hilda, The Mad Bull, Phyllida and opera-loving Claude Erskine-Brown, the Timson clan, but not to that rascal jailer down in the cells at The Bailey who stole Horace's four-horse accumulator winnings. My heart still aches for Mr. Rumpole. We are saddened by the news of Sir John's passing. R.I.P.
Carol Sloane-Spurr and
Edward Spurr
Stoneham, Massachusetts
January 18, 2009