- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005


By John Mortimer

Viking, $24.95, 215 pages


A few years ago conservative writer, cuddly crank and national treasure Florence King said in a column that “Rumpole of the Bailey” was “the most adult program on television.”

Don’t look to me to dispute with La King. She’s spot on about Rumpole (as she is about most things), that intelligent, witty, principled, humane, and all around endearing advocate who has shown the world — against the urgings of common sense and most of the available evidence — that there is a lawyer all of us can love. All of us, that is, save the pompous prosecutors and abusers of authority in this world, who Rumpole delights in getting the best of in the name of justice (and, Rumpole will admit when pressed, in the name of a little harmless fun).

Serious (as opposed to solemn) readers know the delightful and popular Rumpole TV series, presented in America by “Mystery” on PBS, comes from a series of stories and short novels by ex-barrister John Mortimer. In more than 100 stories in a dozen collections — beginning with “Rumpole of the Bailey” in 1978 — Mr. Mortimer has charmed the world with the short, stout, claret-curedHorace Rumpole, who defends his wrongly-accused (most of the time) clients in London’s Central Criminal Court, aka the Old Bailey, and occasionally in out of town venues. Along the way Rumpole gives whiplash to dodgy witnesses and incompetent prosecutors, puts pompous and prejudiced judges in their places, and beguiles juries and readers with his oratorical skill, his humor, his almost-to-the-edge-of-contempt brashness, and his tenacious defense of the presumption of innocence. Magna Carta is in good hands with our Horace.

In Mr. Mortimer’s latest, “Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders,” we see the larval Rumpole in one of his first cases. Rumpole regulars — of the reading or viewing kind — will have heard Horace speak glowingly of the Penge Bungalow Murders case, where he secured a great victory “alone and without a leader.” Until now Rumpole has given us no clues as to what the case that launched the Rumpole career was all about. Now we can know.

This walk down memory lane begins as Rumpole is enduring one of those banes of his professional existence, the unbearable lightness of chambers meetings. Here matters of little importance are labored over at length under the watchful eye of the pious and starchy head of chambers, Soapy Sam Ballard, with the participation of the rest of the members of the familiar Rumpole ensemble at 3 Equity Court, most of whom are at least half a bubble off plumb.

During the meeting in question Mizz Liz Probert, a young lawyer of some legal talent and a black belt in feminist indignation, is demanding that the clueless Claude Erskine-Brown be hauled up on charges for saying that Mizz Liz’s pupil lawyer has nice legs. Rumpole points out that at the pupil’s age he — far from agonizing over inconsequential discourtesies — was busy winning the Penge Bungalow murders case. He’s flummoxed to learn that no one in chambers remembers the case or knowsthe firstthing about it. Rumpole determines at that moment to add the full story of Penge Bungalow to his memoirs, lest one of Rumpole’s most signal triumphs be lost to history.

The rest of this short novel alternates between current problems at 3 Equity Court — including the peccadillo involving Erskine-Brown and the Probert pupil, one Lala Ingolsby — and a detailed remembrance of the case in the early 1950s that started Horace Rumpole the nervous novice on the road to becoming Horace Rumpole the self-assured tormentor of judges and prosecutors and the stalwart defender of such wayward but redeemable humanityas makes its way to him through criminal briefs.

Along the way we also learn how Hilda Wystan — daughter of C.H. Wystan, who was head of chambers when young Rumpole joins it — becomesMrs. Hilda Rumpole, known to Horace as She Who Must Be Obeyed. It’s a peculiar courtship to say the least, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that Rumpole is often more effective in court than out. We’re also treated to Rumpole’s first exercise in defending members of the Timson clan, an extended family of south London villains who Rumpole devotes much of several decades to keeping out of the nick.

The Penge Bungalow case as it unfolds — Penge is a London neighborhood — presents some severe problems for the defense. The accused, 21-year-old Simon Jerold, is charged with the murder of his father and one of his father’s friends — both WWII RAF airmen and war heroes — on the evidence that hours before the murder young Simon had been seen threatening to shoot the two victims with a German Luger, the very weapon that indeed did do in the two men just hours later. A pretty problematic position to be in.

The rookie Rumpole starts this unpromising case with his own severe problem. He’s the junior counsel to his “leader,” Wystan. Under the British system junior counsel are to be seenbut not heard. We know Horace — even a young Horace — is not about to keep his mouth shut as the stodgy Wystan shows early on that he has neither the talent nor the taste for putting up a criminal defense. Wystan, as is the case with so many of Rumpole’s colleagues at the bar, is far more interested in “upholding the finest traditions of the great profession of the bar” — which as far as Horace can tell means sucking up to judges and other powerful personages and lawyers treating each other with exaggerated politeness — than in defending his clients. In this case Wystan is on the way toward being so polite to the judge and the prosecutor that young Simon is likely headed for the scaffold (yes, they did hang convicted murderers in Old Blighty back then) if Rumpole doesn’t intervene.

Of courseRumpole does speak up. Young Simon is nimble enough to see that his only chance to survive his brush with Her Majesty’s legal system is to put his case in Rumpole’s hands. He insists of this — and to the embarrassment of Wystan, the judge, and the prosecutor but to the delight of Rumpole, this is done.

I’ll leave the details of the unraveling of the case to those who choose to read the book.As usual, the joy in reading Rumpole is not so much in the clues and the chase and the discovery of who done it, but in watching the irrepressible Rumpole engage the ironies and foibles of the ongoing human comedy. Few characters in all of English literature are more fun to spend time with than Horace Rumpole.

The Rumpole stories — this one included — are intelligent, gracefully-told entertainments. Much of what occurs in them is played for laughs, but Mr. Mortimer moves deftly between comedy and tragedy. Through Rumpole — lover of cheap wine, fine poetry, and justice tempered with mercy — Mr. Mortimer presents serious themes in an erudite prose style that is always crisp and readable. I guess this makes him one of the most adult story tellers on the book shelves.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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