Growing up in Johannesburg, the novelist Justin Cartwright saw his father subjected to threats and intimidation by the police and witnessed at close quarters the attempted assassination in 1960 of President Hendrik Verwoerd. The experiences left Cartwright, who has died aged 75, keenly aware that ideas have consequences – a truism he claimed was not always apparent to the English, but which informed 13 of his 16 novels.
Cartwright became a noted observer of the minutiae and absurdities of middle-class life, which he witnessed from the centre of the north London literary establishment. His acceptance was assured by a CV laden with awards, including the 1998 Whitbread best novel award for Leading the Cheers and the Hawthornden prize in 2005 for The Promise of Happiness.
Appreciation by the critics was matched by sales when Richard and Judy chose The Promise of Happiness as a book club title, ensuring sales of more than 200,000. The top prize eluded him, however: his sole Man Booker-nominated title, In Every Face I Meet (1995), managed only a shortlisting for the award.
Cartwright was a rare bird in literary fiction, able to use comedy as a Trojan horse to confront readers with the tragedy of human existence. His most laugh-out-loud works, such as Other People’s Money (2011), a satire inspired by the global financial crisis, were underscored by a serious appreciation of the role of human frailty in the actors driving historical events.
Displacement and dispossession were constant themes, with evocative landscapes seen through the eyes of deracinated exiles such as James Kronk in White Lightning (2002), who returns to his native South Africa to find his over-simplification of the problems faced by his homeland has tragic consequences.
White Lightning was one of a number of novels to draw on biographical material. Like Cartwright, Kronk was the son of an opposition newspaper editor. Kronk was also a film-maker, whose fictional production Suzi Crispin: Night Nurse is not dissimilar to Cartwright’s only venture into film directing, the 1978 sub-Sid James epic Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse, starring Arthur Askey and Beryl Reid.
In Up Against the Night (2015), Cartwright’s last novel, the returning South African Frank McAllister shares his creator’s ancestry – he is a descendant of the Boer leader Piet Retief – and education at Oxford University. Biographical detail should not be mistaken for confession, however. Although Cartwright portrayed macho characters at odds with their fathers’ legacies, in interviews he expressed admiration for his own father. The sexual and drunken incontinence of lead characters was not a reflection of his life: a teetotaller, he was devoted to his wife, Penny, a special needs teacher, and their two sons.
Cartwright was born in Cape Town, the son of Nancy (nee McAllister) and AP (“Paddy”) Cartwright, both journalists. The family moved to Johannesburg in 1953, when Paddy became editor of the Rand Daily Mail. The paper’s opposition to apartheid led the police to summon Paddy with an instruction to “bring your toothbrush”, the inference being that he would not return. A dog’s carcass was delivered to his office as a warning.
Alongside his elder brother, Tim, Cartwright was sent to a boarding school 900 miles away in Cape Town. He recounted witnessing from just 20 feet away the near-fatal shooting of Verwoerd in Johannesburg during Easter holidays at home from school.
In the late 1960s, with a Rhodes scholarship, he read English at Trinity College, Oxford, later converting to PPE. In his 2008 paean to Oxford, The Secret Garden, he wrote that the city was “to colonials what the Vatican is to Catholics”. But he chose not to remain in academia, instead moving into advertising after a failed bid for a BBC traineeship.
It was a career at which he excelled and his commercial for Pal dog food won industry plaudits. Dissatisfied, he ventured into film-making with documentaries and the comedy Rosie Dixon. This was followed by a move into political film-making, with the first of a series of election broadcasts for the Liberal party under David Steel in 1979 and later for the SDP, which resulted in his being appointed MBE in 1988.
Although he published three novels, including two thrillers, before 1983, success eluded him until Interior (1988), set in an imaginary African country, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread novel of the year. From this point he built a reputation as a prolific and wide-raging literary writer whose influences were the leading men of late 20th-century American fiction: Saul Bellow, John Updike (for whose Penguin Classics editions he wrote the introductions) and Philip Roth – whom he controversially supported as winner of the 2011 Man Booker International after a bitter row broke out between his fellow judges Rick Gekoski and Carmen Callil.
In the last 18 months of his life Cartwright withdrew from public view after the rapid onset of an illness that affected his cognitive function. Until this point he had been a daily visitor to what he referred to as “his office” – the London Library – where he worked on each novel, occasionally popping across town on his motorbike for coffee with his literary agent, James Gill of United Agents, where the two would discuss ideas and how they would feed into his next book.
He is survived by Penny and their sons, Rufus and Serge.
• Justin Cartwright, writer, born 20 May 1943; died 3 December 2018