John Mortimer

(Jump down to read a review of Rumpole and the Reign of Terror)
(Jump over to read a review of Quite Honestly)

"Rumpole Misbehaves"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 16, 2009)

"I'm afraid what we have here is a case of premature adjudication."

Rumpole Misbehaves by John Mortimer

The irascible Horace Rumpole is definitely not mellowing with age. Concerned with what he sees as a country-wide erosion of civil liberties, Rumpole is representing Peter Timson, a twelve-year-old member of the criminal clan of Timsons, which has provided Rumpole with a steady court income over the years. Peter has been served with an ASBO, an Anti-Social Behavior Order, because he has been playing ball in the street and has had to enter an exclusive neighborhood in order to retrieve his ball. If there is any repetition of this, he will go to court. As Rumpole is grumbling about the absurdity of this order, he is served with his own ASBO--secured by his fellow barristers and staff--because he eats lunch, drinks Chateau Thames Embankment, and smokes cigarillos in chambers, behavior the rest of the group abhors.

Rumpole's biggest legal commitment, at this point, is the case of Graham Wetherby, charged with the murder of a prostitute, a Russian immigrant, during his lunch hour. Wetherby, a mild young man with a severe birthmark on his face, has few friends and no girlfriends, and despite Rumpole's dedication to his case, Wetherby feels a bit cheated because Rumpole is not a QC (Queen's Counsel), as are the attorneys who defend the worst criminals in the jail where he is being held.

The tongue-in-cheek humor, the ironies, and Rumpole's own sardonic wit and asides are delightful, and when Hilda (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed) decides to become a barrister so that she can take over the kinds of cases that Rumpole will be too busy to accept, once he becomes a QC (a project she encourages), the hilarity continues. Hilda is the current muse of "Mad Bull" Bullingham, a judge with whom she plays cards but who has caused more problems for Rumpole than any other. Bullingham, however, adores Hilda, and agrees to sponsor Rumpole for his "silks." As the machinations involved in the process of becoming a QC play out, Rumpole tries to stay on the right side of the establishment and to keep up Wetherby's hopes that the QC title will arrive before his case comes to trial.

All the plots and subplots overlap, and the continuing cast of characters continues to provide amusements. Their long-running history involving past cases keeps the reader constantly thinking of other wonderful Rumpole stories, and the reader's appreciation of author John Mortimer's cleverness in his plots and characterizations continues to grow. As always, the focus here is clearly on Rumpole--unregenerate, unapologetic, and unwilling to compromise.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews
(back to top)

"Rumpole and The Reign of Terror"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky APR 19, 2007)

Rumpole and the Reighn of Terror by John Mortimer

John Mortimer's Rumpole and the Reign of Terror brings back the champion of the underdog, Horace Rumpole, who is the oldest inhabitant of the chambers at 4 Equity Court. With his trademark frayed gown and yellowing wig, Rumpole appears innocuous enough. However, when he stands up in court, he has an arsenal of formidable weapons at his disposal: a stentorian voice, biting wit laced with sarcasm, and devastatingly effective powers of cross-examination. He frequently angers intrusive and overbearing judges, and he specializes in persuading lying witnesses to blurt out the truth.

Refusing to retire from his beloved profession, Rumpole makes most of his living these days defending the Timson clan, whom he considers decent, non-violent criminals. They engage in breaking and entering, burglary, and receipt of stolen property. Unfortunately, Rumpole's relationship with the Timson clan quickly sours when he takes the case of a man accused of consorting with terrorists, Dr. Mahmood Khan. Khan left Pakiston when his anti-government protests made him unwelcome in his native land. He settled in England and married Tiffany Timson, whose family is none too happy with the match. The Timsons reluctantly withdraw their business from Rumpole when he agrees to represent Tiffany's husband.

Khan's case makes Rumpole's blood boil. The new terrorism laws allow the doctor to be imprisoned without knowing the specific charges against him. In addition, Dr. Khan is presumed guilty until proven innocent, which leaves him with little legal recourse. Rumpole defies his long-suffering wife, Hilda (She Who Must Be Obeyed), as well as his obnoxious and condescending Head of Chambers, Soapy Sam Ballard, both of whom urge him to drop the case. On the contrary, Rumpole is determined to fight Dr. Khan's case to the finish, not just on its merits, but also because of its symbolic importance. Rumpole is steadfast in his belief that it is his duty to safeguard "civil rights ... and the basic principles of our criminal law."

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a small gem. In fewer than two hundred pages, Mortimer writes a tidy mystery, and he also captures the spirit of our times. We live in an age when elderly people like Rumpole are shunted aside as being out of step, when the fear of terrorism leads to abuse of human rights, and when racial prejudice infects cities populated by large numbers of immigrants. Mortimer explores these and other themes with wit and effortless style. In this novel, the irrepressible and cantankerous Rumpole is challenged not only by outrageous new laws that threaten our constitutional freedoms, but also by his rebellious wife. She Who Must Be Obeyed has one or two tricks up her sleeve to get back at her exasperating spouse.

For those readers lucky enough to have seen the magnificent Leo McKern play Rumpole of the Bailey on public television, this book will be an even greater treat. It is a pleasure to imagine the great McKern as Rumpole, talking back to judges, spouting Shakespeare, sparring with Hilda, and standing up for the principles of justice. Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is charmingly satirical, enormously entertaining, and one of the best mysteries of the year.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 29 reviews

(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to

  • Charade (1947)
  • Like Men Betrayed (1953)
  • The Narrowing Stream (1954)
  • Heaven and Hell (including The Fear of Heaven and The Prince of Darkness) (1976)
  • Edwin and Other Plays (1984)
  • In Character (1984)
  • Summer's Lease (1988)
  • Great Law And Order Stories (1990)
  • The Rapstone Chronicles (omnibus) (1991)
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Father Brown, Father Dowling And Other Ecclesiastical Sleuths (1992) (with G K Chesterton, Ralph McInerny)
  • The Oxford Book of Villains (1992)
  • Dunster (1992)
  • Under the Hammer (1994)
  • Felix in the Underworld (1996)
  • Quite Honestly (2005; February 2007) read our review

Titmuss Novels:

Rumpole Series:


  • Zerah Colburn the Spirit of Darkness (2005)



(back to top)

Book Marks:


(back to top)

About the Author:

John MortimerSir John Clifford Mortimer was born in 1923. He was educated at Harrow School (1937-40) and Brasenose College, Oxford (1940-42, BA 1947), and, like his father, he became a barrister in 1948 after serving as a scriptwriter and assistant director for the Crown Film Units during World War II. Mortimer's first novel, Charade, was also published in 1948, and within ten years he had published six more novels. His third radio play, The Dock Brief, which was produced by the BBC Third Programme in 1957, won the Italia Prize and was produced on the stage in 1958, along with the first play he wrote for the stage, What Shall We Tell Caroline? Among his subsequent stage plays are The Wrong Side of the Park (1960), The Judge (1967), A Voyage Round My Father (1970), and Collaborators (1973). Mortimer also wrote the screenplays for the films Cider with Rosie and Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussollini, which starred Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

Unlike his playwright contemporaries, the “angry young men” of the 1950s, Mortimer came from an upper-class background, wrote about the middle classes in decline, and followed established theatrical traditions. He is better known for his one-act plays than his full-length ones, and he is perhaps best known for his "Rumpole of the Bailey" novels and television series, and for his television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

Mortimer continued to work as a lawyer and became a Queen's Counsel (1966) and Master of the Bench, Inner Temple (1975). In a celebrated case in 1970 he successfully defended the publishers of Oz against pornography charges.

Mortimer married twice, first to author Penelope Fletcher Dimont (1949, divorced 1971), and second to Penelope Gollop (1972-), and he had two children with each.

He lived in what was once his father’s house in the Chilterns.  He received a knighthood for his services to the arts. He died January 16, 2009 at the age of 85 years old. He had been ill for some time. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014