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Rallying ‘Round Rumpole

John Mortimer's priceless creation now confronts the War on Terror.

By 1.31.07

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Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
By John Mortimer
(Viking, 184 pages, $23.95)

English writer and former barrister John Mortimer has accomplished a couple of very counterintuitive things along the way of creating one of the most delightful characters in all of English literature.

Mortimer not only has given the world an entertaining lawyer we can all love, albeit a literary one, but he's also demonstrated that occasionally a lifetime man of the political and cultural left (a long lifetime in Mortimer's case; he left 80 in the rearview mirror a few years back) can be both funny and thoughtful about the things that matter most.

American television viewers owe Mortimer a debt of thanks for Horace Rumpole, the short, stout, claret-soaked and poetry-quoting barrister best known to Americans as "Rumpole of the Bailey," from the television series of that name broadcast on PBS periodically from 1978 to 1990. Rumpole was played by the incomparable Leo McKern, who was put on this earth by God specifically to bring this character to life. Sadly for us left behind, McKern has gone on to his reward, which, as I believe God to be fair, should be considerable. But there will be no new Rumpole on TV, the thought of anyone other than McKern playing Rumpole being as incomprehensible and unlikely as an Episcopal bishop saying something sensible.

But Mortimer is still with us and with it. So there can be more Rumpole on the page. Readers have enjoyed following the amusing exploits of Rumpole through a dozen short story collections, beginning with 1978's Rumpole of the Bailey, and now, with the publication of Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, three short novels. Readers looking for thoughtful laughs from their fiction could do worse than beginning with Rumpole of the Bailey and chuckling their way through the entire collection. Hard to imagine where to get more laughs per mile.

The humor comes from the way Rumpole, Mortimer's alter ego, pierces the pomposity and deflates the worst impulses of judges and prosecutors (the two classes often being hard to distinguish in Rumpole stories -- both strain the quality of mercy to within an inch of its life) by his brash and penetrating questioning and courtroom dramatics. No one deals with the insolence of office in a more delightful way than our Horace.

Many assume Rumpole to be a liberal, because he always appears for the defense, because he often has little patience with figures of authority, and because he was created by lifetime Labour partisan Mortimer, who has had some pretty snarky things to say about Margaret Thatcher. But this is error and slander. Rumpole is not an apologist for crime, but a stout defender of the presumption of innocence (as all good conservatives should be). He's not an enemy of authority, but of its abuse, always too common in Old Blighty and just about everywhere else.

And for a lifetime lefty, Mortimer has more than his share of lucid moments. Rumpole doesn't just beat up judges, prosecutors, politicians, and clergymen, whom he often portrays as self-important humbugs with the souls of hangmen, but he also has a good deal of fun at the expense of black-belt feminists, food nuts, anti-smoking Nazis, animal rights activists, psychobabblers, PC enforcers, enviro-nutters, and other wholly-owned subsidiaries of the cultural left.

REIGN OF TERROR BEGINS, as many Rumpole stories do, with our Horace down the Old Bailey (London's central criminal court) defending a member of the Timson clan -- an extended family of South London villains Rumpole has devoted much of his career to keeping out of the nick -- accused of the kind of garden variety crime that keeps bread on the Timson table. Rumpole leaves with a W in the current case, and with a new kind of client in a wholly new kind of predicament. Dr. Mahmood Khan, a Pakistani doctor married to Tiffany Timson, is well-liked and more English than the English. He finds himself charged with something to do with terrorism, though it's hard to tell what because the authorities won't tell Mahmood or Rumpole what Mahmood is supposed to have done and what the evidence is against him.

The point of this novel, the most political and most topical of the Rumpole stories, is to give Mortimer some space to vent on the steps New Labour has taken to protect the UK from terrorists, steps Mortimer feels tread unnecessarily on the rights English citizens have traditionally enjoyed. In previous stories Mortimer has given us gentle wit and satire, with Horace playing off against an ensemble cast of slightly off-plumb judges, prosecutors, and his colleagues in chambers at 4 Equity Court. (And of course Horace's formidable and worthy wife, Hilda, known to Rumpole as "She Who Must Be Obeyed.") These judicial short-rounds (an artilleryman's term -- think about it) are present in Reign of Terror, and amuse us as always. But they share a stage with some real names and real offices and real contemporary issues.

Though I was doubtful before I opened Reign, I found that Mortimer does indeed manage to pull off this tricky mix of the serious and the whimsical. Rumpole never betrays his fierce devotion to the defense of his client, but it's made clear that both Horace and his creator take the threat of terrorism seriously, more seriously than many on the left. Regular TAS readers might draw the line at a different place than Mortimer on this one, but it will be clear after this literary exercise that Mortimer has informed his emotion with some serious thought.

Regular Rumpole readers are familiar with Mortimer's habit of providing us with happy endings. Don't look for any changes here. I'll leave it up to those whom I've convinced to read the book to see how Horace moves Dr. Mahmood from a kangaroo court proceeding to a real trial. Suffice it to say that Mortimer is not above using some standard Rumpole trickery, even in a case involving issues of life and death.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.