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BOOKS: ‘A Rumpole Christmas: Stories’

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A RUMPOLE CHRISTMAS: STORIES
By John Mortimer
Viking, $21.95, 176 pages
REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

Christmas without Rumpole would be like Christmas without Scrooge.

Indeed they had in common a "Bah humbug!" approach to life and its various celebrations. This compendium of Christmas festivity a la Rumpole is a fitting epitaph for Sir John Mortimer, who died almost a year ago and who is likely to be best remembered for his magnificent creation of Horace Rumpole, the eternal junior barrister who never seeks to take silk because he considers Queen's Counsel "queer customers."

Rumpole struts and frets his way through these pages in a grumpily captivating manner. Given his personality, you wouldn't expect him to be fond of Christmas — although a glass of Christmas cheer is acceptable — and he isn't. He buys an annual bottle of lavender water for his wife, Hilda, otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she reciprocates with ties and socks.

The only moment of Christmas drama in the Rumpole household is the decision of whether to stand up for the queen's annual speech. In fact, the only comfort Rumpole can draw from the joys of the season is that crime doesn't take a holiday, and as he has often pointed out to Hilda, criminal activities are what keep her in household necessities.

Illustrated in a Dickensian style, this slim and charming little volume suggests there is more than one Rumpole hiding inside the tough old bear who conducts cross-examinations in his beloved Old Bailey. While Rumpole fixes a cold eye on Christmas and carol tapes, there is a compassionate heart behind his gruff demeanor. Who else would recognize behind the beard of a Santa Claus at his law office Christmas party a former burglar he had once sent to jail? And who else would inspire the thief to risk returning to the scene of his latest crime to pay an ancient debt because he remembered Rumpole as the only defense lawyer who had been "decent" to him.

Dragged by the indefatigable Hilda to Minchingham Hall for a holiday to "slim down" his substantial girth, the unfortunate Rumpole finds himself drinking "yak's milk" instead of his preferred Chateau Fleet Street, and offered steamed spinach and diced carrot. That, of course, is before a murder is committed in the distinguished gathering, which cheers up the venerable barrister considerably, especially since he traps the culprit with a little bit of trickery.

Then there is the account of how Rumpole is engaged in a "jolly little case of demanding money with menaces, more commonly known as blackmail" when he encounters Edmund, the 12-year-old son of a woman charged with blackmailing "Mr. X," her former lover who admits he wouldn't have gone to court about the money except for pressure by his outraged wife.

Waiting for his mother, Edmund is found to be reading "Sensational Trials" and he turns out to be fascinated by cross-examination. Rumpole however is at pains to explain to him that this is "not the art of examining crossly."

"I was polite to Mr X," he insists," I led him gently by the hand up the garden path and dropped him in the compost heap."

When Rumpole later realizes that Mr. X deliberately lost his own case as a final gesture of affection to the boy's mother, the barrister helps get Edmund his heart's desire in the shape of a flashing and squawking model of a pterodactyl.

Rumpole revels in a running battle with judges, defying them to the point of risking penalties, but he cannot resist deflating the pomp of the man empowered to hand down decisions that could change or even end the life of a defendant. Rumpole fights for the underdog, partly because he enjoys it, and he is considered a savior by the Timson family, a gang of small- time thieves who spend less time in jail than they probably should because of the barrister's efforts on their behalf.

There is only one Rumpole, and we should be grateful that we can celebrate the season by renewing acquaintance with the chronicles of the portly man with a gravy stained waistcoat, a battered hat, an ancient wig, a wine bill that is forever overdue, a wife of whom he is more fond than he admits, and an unshakeable belief in the fairness of what he calls the "golden thread" of British justice by jury.

Rumpole is a comic character in the great classic tradition and we have to assume it was as entertaining for the author to create him as it is to read about him. Thanks to the legacy of Mortimer, Rumpole, irascible, rumpled and oddly lovable, will always be with us.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for the McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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