- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006


By John Mortimer

Viking, $23.95, 184 pages


With 14 previous Rumpole books under his belt, Sir John Mortimer might have left it at that; at age 83, he might even have been forgiven if, after hitting so many balls out of the park, he hadn’t come up to his usual standard.

The amazing good news is that his latest effort is one of the very best yet about the aging, crusty, principled, grumpy but finally lovable hack barrister of London’s celebrated Old Bailey court. It is even better than its predecessor “Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders.”

Unlike “Penge,” which finally revealed the details of the case that made his reputation when first starting out at the Bar — “the case that launched a thousand briefs” — this new novel takes place squarely in present-day England, as Tony Blair’s government takes off the constitutional gloves in order to fight terrorism.

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Sir John that “Rumpole and the Reign of Terror” is a stinging indictment of the abridgment of civil liberties by the present British government. Originally a strong supporter of New Labor (he was rumored to be on the short list of those to be given Life Peerages after they came to power), Mr. Mortimer rapidly became disenchanted with Mr. Blair and Company.

Not only was he outraged by such measures as the jettisoning of such jewels of England’s ancient legal dower as the right against self-incrimination — done long before the threat of terrorism was so spectacularly revealed early in the 21st century — but he even became a strident voice against Mr. Blair’s ban on fox hunting.

The passages in this novel describing the socializing at the heart of Blairite circles are devastating, as are the portraits of everyone in that world from cabinet ministers to mere acolytes. A fundamental streak of libertarianism makes his — and his like-minded creation, Horace Rumpole’s — current bitter attitude towards their government unsurprising.

Given all this, I feared that perhaps the author’s hostility might have made him underrate the danger of terrorism, but it is clear that he really is concerned with the lack of due process rather than with denigrating this threat. Clearly, he is appalled at a situation when a man charged with being a terrorist is unable to confront the accusation or even be told what it is he is supposed to have done that leads him to be locked up indefinitely without a trial in the regular courts.

As a lawyer, Rumpole is perhaps even more astounded to discover at the special tribunal set up to handle such cases that neither he nor the instructing solicitor is privy to any of the details of the charge against which they are trying to defend their client.

But it was interesting that even the redoubtable Rumpole, constitutionally incapable of pleading even the most culpable of his clients guilty, is nonetheless sufficiently shaken by the terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005, as to entertain severe doubts about his pleasant-seeming client.

After the tribunal has left this Pakistani doctor in a legal limbo but still imprisoned, Rumpole has to resort to most unorthodox — and for the reader most amusing — methods in order to secure for him a trial where ordinary, albeit since Mr. Blair, diminished, rights hold sway.

Serious as these matters are, Mr. Mortimer is a master of comic writing and this latest book is packed with laughs and amusing situations of all sorts. A dinosaur like Rumpole is not only nostalgic about Magna Carta; the fountain pen is something he clings to as all around him computers hold sway.

Even before he finds out that his overbearing wife Hilda — usually referred to as She Who Must Be Obeyed — has bought a computer on sale, Rumpole’s attitude towards this newfangled ubiquitous device is tinged with acid strong enough to corrode his beloved old fashioned pen.

He would be even more upset if he knew — as the reader does almost from the book’s beginning — that she is using her new purchase to put down on paper her memoirs, or rather her side of life with Rumpole. Her take on events is interleaved with the more familiar chapters written in Rumpole’s inimitable voice, an addition which doubles the hilarity enjoyed by readers.

Even more troublesome to Rumpole at present is his eternal judicial nemesis, the Mad Bull, a k a Judge Bullingham, who has given the barrister many uncomfortable hours in past trials — in both senses of that word. The reactionary jurist has been promoted by Mr. Blair’s Lord Chancellor to the High Court Bench, with the result that he is now Mr. Justice Bullingham, or as Rumpole prefers to call him, Mr. Injustice Bullingham.

Still more disturbing is the growing alliance, almost a dalliance, growing up between She Who Must Be Obeyed and the Mad Bull, who has definite designs on the discontented Mrs. Rumpole. Friendly sessions at the bridge table lead to lunch at his club, then to movies, dinner and … you’ll just have to read the book to see if all’s well that ends well for the Rumpole menage.

Not only is this novel a delight to read, but its title is one of the best and most apt in the series.

It is quite clear that there are several reigns of terror facing Horace Rumpole: Britain’s struggle to deal effectively with the terrorist menace which has reared its hideous head; the government’s ruthless determination to sweep aside ancient but to them now outmoded civil rights and liberties; the constant drumbeat from colleagues and superiors to “move with the times;” and last but not least the increasing and ever more merciless pressure from Hilda and her equally overbearing schoolfriend and frequent houseguest, Dodo Mackintosh, not to be the way he is and always has been personally and professionally.

The juiciness with which all this is handled shows absolutely that the Rumpole well is anything but dry, and so let us hope that there will be many Rumpole novels and short stories as Horace faces — and kicks against — the assaults of modern life.

Martin Rubin is a critic and writer in Pasadena, Calif.



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