Sunday, January 18, 2009

He Who Will Be Missed


First Donald Westlake. And now Sir John Mortimer, who died on Friday at his home somewhere in England. He was 85.

Yes, yes, yes, I know Mortimer did lots of other things. Tons of things. He was a crusading lawyer and a beloved novelist, a gadfly and a warrior of the literary trenches, a knight and a court jester, a respected 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 marvelous television 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 all-too-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, the Mad Bull, the Timson clan (criminals one and all) and all those other 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.

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