John Mortimer Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to his stage plays, John Mortimer wrote in a variety of other genres. His earliest work was as a novelist (Charade, 1947; Rumming Park, 1948; Answer Yes or No, 1950; Like Men Betrayed, 1953; The Narrowing Stream, 1954; and Three Winters, 1956); in the late 1950’s, he wrote the first of many screenplays; he began writing specifically for television in 1960 and later wrote such popular successes as the Rumpole of the Bailey series (1975, 1978, 1979) and Brideshead Revisited (1981; adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel). He also continued to be a regular newspaper critic and interviewer. Mortimer published an autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life (1982). His later works include the novels Titmuss Regained (1990) and Dunster (1992) and in the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century, a series of short-story collections based on his Rumpole character.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Mortimer won the Italia Prize in 1958 for The Dock Brief, which the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Third Programme produced in 1957. He received a Writers Guild of Great Britain award for best original teleplay in 1969 for A Voyage Round My Father, a Golden Globe award nomination in 1970 for his screenplay John and Mary, and was the British Film and Television Academy’s writer of the year in 1980. He was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1986 and received an honorary degree from Exeter University in the same year. He served as the dramatic critic for London’s New Statesman, Evening Standard, and The Observer.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John Mortimer created in Horace Rumpole a character who stands apart from other memorable fictional detectives—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey—because he is more than just a brilliant and resourceful solver of mysteries. Though a self-described Old Bailey hack, he has such keen legal and ratiocinative skills that he is an effective advocate and exceptional courtroom presence. His sympathetic understanding of people, strong social conscience, and disdain for empty pomp and circumstance inform not only his legal work but also his jousts with colleagues, politicians, and other members of the establishment. Within a format combining mystery and humor, Mortimer presents an insider’s view of the British legal system, notably its hypocritical barristers and biased, sometimes ignorant, judges. Iconoclast and nonconformist Rumpole often seems to be tilting at windmills, but his frequently successful struggles on behalf of society’s outsiders and oppressed imbue these comic mysteries with a thematic substance rare in genre fiction. The recurring cast of characters—the Timsons, whose generations of petty criminals have helped support Rumpole over the years; his second-rate colleague Claude Erskine-Brown; the bemused head of chambers Soapy Sam Ballard; a parade of injudicious judges; and Rumpole’s somewhat shrewish wife, Hilda—creates a perfect backdrop for Mortimer’s social and legal satire, as compelling as the courtroom scenes that are the climax of every Rumpole story and novel.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Mortimer’s major fictional creations are Horace Rumpole and Leslie Titmuss. Is it correct to say that they are total opposites?

How does Mortimer attain freshness and variety in the Rumpole stories, even though they are formulaic narratives?

What is the role of the British class system in Mortimer’s drama and fiction?

What is the source of Rumpole’s “singular distaste for the law,” and how does it affect his work as a barrister?

How does Mortimer fuse the comic and tragic, optimism and pessimism, in his fiction?

Why is A Voyage Round My Father, an autobiographical play, enduringly popular? Does it have a universality to which audiences respond?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Barnes, Clive. “‘Little Hotel’ on Slight.” Review of A Little Hotel on the Side, by John Mortimer. New York Post, January 27, 1992. A review of the “racily idiomatic adaptation” of a French farce, here in Mortimer’s version called A Little Hotel on the Side. The Belasco Theater was the site for this second offering of the first season for Tony Randall’s National Actors Theater. As in all farce, “the story doesn’t matter.”

Hayman, Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. Mortimer is grouped with Robert Bolt and Peter Shaffer, and all are seen as playwrights who “have repeatedly tried to move away from naturalism, [oscillating] between writing safe plays, catering for the West End audience, and dangerously serious plays, which might have alienated the public they had won.” Contains an overview of The Dock Brief, Two Stars for Comfort, and The Judge.

Herbert, Rosemary. “Murder by Decree.” The Armchair Detective 29 (Fall, 1987): 340-349. Provides insight into Mortimer’s approach to writing detection and the development not only of Rumpole but also of the supportive cast of characters.

Honan, William H. “The Funny Side of Social Issues.” The New York Times, May 12, 1990, p. A13. Honan...

(The entire section is 605 words.)