Forever Rumpole: The Best of the Rumpole Stories
By John Mortimer
(Viking, 528 pages, $30)
Lucky is the man, woman, or child whose Christmas gift list is made up of readers. There's much to choose from this season, not the least being this fine, "best of" collection of stories featuring the late John Mortimer's delightful, claret-soaked advocate, Horace Rumpole. A character Dickens would have been proud to have created.
Yes, that's the Horace Rumpole, the short, plump, poetry-spouting, barrister for the defense brought to the small screen in 42 episodes of "Rumpole of the Bailey (London's central criminal court)" between 1978 and 1992. The episodes, aired in America on PBS's Mystery series, are based closely on the short stories by Mortimer, himself a barrister, mostly for the defense, before his writing career became so successful he was obliged to hang up his wig. They star the incomparable Leo McKern as Rumpole.
Mortimer, who died in 2009 at 85, gave us more than 100 Rumpole stories in 12 collections beginning with Rumpole of the Bailey in 1978 through Rumpole and the Primrose Path in 2002. The stories and Mortimer's character came as a revelation to those of us who despaired of ever encountering a lawyer we could love. Who knew courtroom drama could be this much fun?
The stories are intelligent, witty, and finely crafted. Mortimer uses Rumpole as a foil to present his somewhat jaundiced view of the state and practice of British justice, and to remark, with great comic effect, on the cultural oddities of the day.
Rumpole, with great sympathy for the petty foibles and weaknesses of mankind, always appears for the defense and prides himself on never pleading guilty. The indomitable Rumpole is a crafty cross-examiner who can whipsaw witnesses that include dodgy "experts," bent coppers, and self-interested pleaders. It's jury advocacy that Rumpole cherishes, as did his creator. Both admit to knowing little about the law, and are not interested in arguing its finer points. No Pharisee is our Horace.
Rumpole also specializes in annoying judges -- who, he complains, too often put their thumbs on the scale in favor of the prosecution -- with his brashness, which often comes within millimeters of contempt. Among Rumpole's many courtroom weapons (as was the case with Mortimer) is humor. How much tougher it is for prosecutors when the jury is laughing at their case. But how much the better for readers.
In 1993 Mortimer published The Best of Rumpole, a collection of seven of his favorite stories which, he said, "Made me laugh a little when I was writing them and which drew some laughter from the actors when they read through the television versions." These seven appear in Forever, along with seven of his later stories and a fragment of a story uncompleted at Mortimer's death.
The first story in this collection, "Rumpole and the Younger Generation," is the first Rumpole story Mortimer wrote and sets the tone for the Rumpole saga in a long and amusing first paragraph explaining why the nearly 70 year-old Rumpole will "take up my pen" to narrate his career at the bar. Long time readers or TV viewers of the series will recognize other early favorites such as "Rumpole and the Show Folk," "Rumpole and the Tap End," and "Rumpole à la Carte."
Though Rumpole never changes -- only one of the ways in which he is conservative -- the world and the practice of law do. Later stories, such as "Rumpole and the Primrose Path," tell of an era where computers and other electronic gadgets that mystify Horace have replaced typewriters in legal chambers, and the profession attempts to run itself in a more business-like manner. In "Primrose" Rumpole encounters, amusingly, Luci Gribble, 3 Equity Court's new marketing director, who is a fount of business-speak and neologisms. Rumpole, whose favorite reading is The Oxford Book of English Verse, can barely understand her.
I should here deal with the small amount of blowback I've gotten from some TAS readers when I've whooped up Mortimer and Rumpole. Both creator and creation in this case are liberals, these prosecutors charge. Mortimer was indeed a lifetime supporter of the Labour Party and had some unkind things to say about Margaret Thatcher. Rumpole, of course, never pleads guilty. And really needn't do so on this case.
Mortimer's liberalism was more of the libertarian variety. He defended numerous free speech cases in his legal career. He was the kind of liberal who believed people should be able to do what they wish, rather than the far more numerous kind who wish to micro-manage everyone's life.
And Rumpole -- though he invariably appears for the defense -- is not defending crime, but the presumption of innocence. A cornerstone of any free society. And though he regularly pillories judges, cops, and prosecutors, he is not anti-authority, but anti-abuse of authority. The insolence of office is a malady here, in the UK, and in most of the rest of the known universe. Our Horace will have none of it.
Defense stipulates (in this case my defense of Rumpole) that real burglars and safe crackers are not as cuddly as the Timsons, the extended clan of South London villains Rumpole has built a career on keeping out of the nick. But red-blooded TAS-reading conservatives oppose the mailed fist of government crushing the individuals. So does Rumpole, even if he does take it to exotic lengths from time to time.
Mortimer didn't adopt the more noxious tics of the cultural left. Through his alter ego, Rumpole, he had a great deal of fun at the expense of geek-branch feminists, enviro-nutters, anti-smoking zealots, neo-prohibitionists, food faddists, and all manner of Puritan defenders of the politically correct.
How much better the world would be if all its liberals were like John Mortimer and Horace Rumpole. And how much better the Christmas holidays will go down with these stories to dip into, either for old Rumpole hands, or for those who've yet to have the pleasure of Horace Rumpole's company.
Forever Rumpole is well titled. So long as there is sympathy for sinful and muddled mankind, a delight in humor, an interest in justice, and any love of freedom, Horace Rumpole will indeed be forever.