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Christmas With an Old Bailey Hack

This collection from the late John Mortimer that will make a perfect gift for the innocent and guilty alike.

By 11.12.09

A Rumpole Christmas
By John Mortimer
(Viking, 161 pages, $21.95)

This slim volume of witty stories is the perfect stocking-stuffer for fans of the gruff but literate and charming, claret-soaked advocate Horace Rumpole, a creation of the late, claret-soaked, former English barrister John Mortimer.

Before going further we should clear up that Rumpole is the Horace Rumpole of the popular PBS series, Rumpole of the Bailey, 44 episodes of which were broadcast in America on PBS's "Mystery" between 1978 and 1992. The episodes are all very true to Mortimer's stories and novels, fiction informed by Mortimer's long and eventful career at the bar, and by his jaundiced view of the shortcomings of old father Antic the law.

A Rumpole Christmas will be a bittersweet pleasure for fans of Mortimer, who, sad to say, went to his reward in January. Which reward, if God is a reader and has a sense of humor, will be considerable, even though Mortimer the man was less than pious for most of his life.

The five stories in Rumpole Christmas are not new Rumpole, found and published after Mortimer's death. They've all appeared in newspapers and magazines between 1997 and 2006, but appear here in book form for the first time.

In "Rumpole and Father Christmas," Rumpole encounters a Santa who finds it more blessed to receive than to give, though Santa is finally captured by the spirit of the season. In "Rumpole's Slimmed Down Christmas," yet another attempt by Horace's formidable wife Hilda to improve him leads to a murder case for Horace to solve at a new-age fat farm that Horace can't wait to escape. In "Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces" Horace gives a blackmailer a taste of his own in a good cause. In "Rumpole and the Boy," not everyone is what he seems.

These gracefully told stories, like the hundred-plus Rumpole stories in a dozen collections that preceded them, showcase the Rumpole wit, charming audacity, swash-buckling-just-short-of-contempt courtroom style, and passionate commitment to the notion that everyone is innocent until a jury finds otherwise. Rumpole is, above all else, a defender of muddled and sinful humanity (though the secular Rumpole has little truck with the term "sinful"). There's a straight and traceable line between Magna Carta and Horace Rumpole, though he must constantly be educating not only jurors, but too often judges, on the meaning of presumption of innocence.

Regular Rumpole readers -- there are many on both sides of the Atlantic -- will consider these stories literary comfort food. New readers can enjoy them as well, but might be better advised to start with 1978's Rumpole of the Bailey, or The First Rumpole Omnibus, which is still in print. This is the best way to get the full benefit of the Rumpole universe, which includes the off-plumb ensemble cast of characters Rumpole rubs elbows with in chambers at 4 Equity Court, down the Old Bailey (London's central criminal court), and at Pommeroy's Wine Bar, where Rumpole unwinds after work with the aid of his favorite libation, Chateau Thames Embankment.

These early stories also introduce readers to Rumpole's formidable lady, Hilda Rumpole, known to Horace as She Who Must Be Obeyed, and who in adversarial relations with Rumpole at home has a better won-lost record than Her Majesty's prosecutors ever will. 

Though Horace is hardly a Grinch or a Scrooge -- you get no "bah-humbugs" from him -- he's not overly fond of Christmas. This is mainly because the world around him goes on holiday routine and he must spend much enforced time with She Who Must Be Obeyed. In "Familiar Faces" we hear Rumpole say:

I have no rooted objection to Christmas Day, but I must say it's an occasion when time seems to hang particularly heavy on the hands…. I suppose what I have against Christmas Day is that the courts are all shut and no one is being tried for anything.

Rumpole is indeed happiest when he's down the Old Bailey, there to whipsaw dodgy witnesses, under-qualified "experts," and, most satisfying of all, tormenting judges who act like assistant prosecutors, all in the name of defending his clients, some of whom are fairly dodgy themselves. As these Christmas stories take place around the holidays, less of the action takes place at the Old Bailey or in chambers than in other collections. But crime, it seems, doesn't take a holiday. It finds our Horace even when he's off duty. And the same acute Rumpole mind that triumphs in court prevails in less official venues.

Horace Rumpole's humor, his humanity, his bull-headedness in the face of his wife's, his colleagues', and the entire judicial establishment's attempts to make him knuckle under, make A Rumpole Christmas a welcome addition to any reader's holiday.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.