- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004


By John Mortimer

Viking, $24.95, 212 pages


John Mortimer returns with his 12th collection of stories featuring Horace Rumpole, the thinking person’s favorite barrister and one of the most delightful characters in all of English literature.

Readers on both sides of the Atlantic will be pleased and relieved by the arrival of “Primrose” — which could have been entitled “Rumpole Revived” — because the final story in Mr. Mortimer’s 2001 collection, “Rumpole Rests His Case,” saw our Horace in hospital and at death’s door after a heart attack brought on by a particularly brutal encounter with Judge Roger “The Mad Bull” Bullingham, a prosecutor in judicial robes whom Rumpole has battled for decades.

Doubtless many Rumpole fans feared that age — Mr. Mortimer is 80 — and the sheer number of accumulated Rumpole stories may have inclined the author to want to hang up Rumpole’s wig. (Mr. Mortimer, a former barrister himself, put his own wig away years ago to concentrate on writing.)

Not a bit of it.

In “Primrose” — named after the Primrose Path Home, a convalescent center from which Horace escapes in the title story, with both his health and a case — Rumpole is back on his hind legs, scheming and spouting poetry in his chambers at 3 Equity Court. He’s also once again taunting judges and whipsawing witnesses down the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) in the name of his clients’ freedom, the presumption of innocence, and the honor of Rumpole.

Mr. Mortimer hasn’t missed a step. The “Primrose” stories, like their distinguished predecessors, are literate, funny, tightly plotted, and gracefully told. They present serious values, usually portrayed as comedy, though Mr. Mortimer is deft at moving seamlessly between comedy and tragedy.

In the new collection, Rumpole defends an honest nurse accused of a downright questionable murder; a cop who believes defense attorneys are all scoundrels; a noisy religious fanatic accused of murdering a beautiful Jamaican immigrant; and a couple of members of the Timson clan accused of the garden-variety crime that constitutes the family business.

These defendants remain free thanks to Rumpole’s skill as an advocate and to the fact that the “victims” in the crimes of which Rumpole’s clients stand accused are often pretty dodgy themselves.

But regardless of how ingenious Mortimer’s plots are, the main purpose of his stories is to present the jaundiced Rumpole’s (i.e., Mr. Mortimer’s) view of the English judicial system and of various forms of current cultural silliness. Long after readers forget whodunit they’ll remember with delight how Horace Rumpole engages the world.

Many Americans, including me, came to Rumpole through the PBS “Mystery” series which aired 44 episodes of “Rumpole of the Bailey” between 1978 and 1992. In these faithful renditions of the original books, the short, stout, claret-soaked advocate is brought to life by the incomparable Leo McKern, whose rich baritone I hear as I read these stories (sadly, McKern died last year, so the new stories will probably never make it to the small screen).

Wordsworth’s poetry has never sounded better than when recited fortissimo by McKern as Rumpole rampant at 3 Equity Court, or in the Froxbury Mansions on the Gloucester Road where he lives with his wife, Hilda (referred to by Horace as “She Who Must be Obeyed”).

The ensemble cast that Rumpole fans have enjoyed on page and screen is again present in “Primrose”: the comprehensively inadequate and Wagner-besotted Claude Erskine- Brown; the pious and pompous head of chambers at 3 Equity Court, Soapy Sam Ballard; the intelligent but icy and ambitious Philida Erskine-Brown, nee Trant; the tall, birdlike but efficient P.I., “Fig” Newton; and of course the Mad Bull and other of Rumpole’s judicial and prosecutorial foils who, when not being outwitted by Horace, strain the living hell out of the quality of mercy.

Now seems a good time to deal with the oft-heard slander that Horace Rumpole is a liberal. (Those who say this should be made to wash their mouths out with Horace’s usual after-work bracer, Chateau Thames-Embankment. It would clear their minds and improve their dispositions.)

This is too facile a conclusion to arrive at just because Horace always appears for the defense and takes on various authority figures, mostly self-important judges, for whom he fairly oozes contempt.

It’s not crime that Rumpole defends, but the presumption of innocence.

(Okay, most real defendants aren’t nearly as cuddly as the Timsons, an extended family of minor South London villains; Rumpole has made a career of keeping them out of the nick.)

And it’s not authority but its abuse — sadly not uncommon in England or anywhere else — that mobilizes the Rumpole ire and the considerable talent and humor that go with it.

Horace Rumpole, like his creator, is a mix of convention, eccentricity, and contrariness. Although he torments biased judges and cops who believe everyone in the dock is guilty — such as Commander Bob Durden of “Rumpole and the Scales of Justice” in the current collection — he also has a good deal of fun at the expense of enviro-wackos, geek-branch feminists, psychobabblers, animal rights activists, and enforcers of political correctness. His essential conservatism — of the traditionalist variety — is bone deep.

The most literate lawyer ever to twist an argument is also death on those who abuse the language, such as Luci Gribble, 3 Equity Court’s director of marketing, whom we encounter for the first time in this collection. La Gribble is a fount of corporate jargon, neo-speak that Horace, whose favorite bedside reading is “The Oxford Book of English Verse,” finds nearly indecipherable.

Horace Rumpole’s humor, his courage in defending his principles, his heroic obstinacy in the face of his wife’s and his colleagues’ attempts to “improve” him, and his deep humanity — all skillfully rendered in these new stories — make us pray that John Mortimer lives forever, and gives us a new Rumpole every year.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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