- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rumpole has always misbehaved. It is the stock in trade of the roly-poly, rambunctious barrister who for

many happy years has prowled the legendary Old Bailey. But this time Sir John Mortimer has Rumpole taking arms against political correctness — or political nonsense — in the form of an ASBO, meaning a civil order drawn up to ban anti-social behavior.

To be specific, it is the case of a 12-year-old boy who has kicked a soccer ball into a neighbor”s yard. And the situation is made even more outrageous by the fact that Rumpole”s own personal habit of having a bottle of plonk, a cigar and a snack in his room in Chambers has forced him to fight an ASBO imposed in the name of the environment by his more conformist colleagues.

Only Rumpole can transform the crime of kicking a football into a legal coup by linking it to a murder that involves an underground prostitution ring and only Rumpole can avoid his own ASBO by once again outfoxing the pompously correct.

However, what is surprising about the latest romp in the Rumpole series, which dates back to 1975, is that the iconoclastic barrister is tempted to “take silk” or become a Queen”s Counsel (QC) an elevated title he has always disdained by defining it as “queer customer.” What changes his mind is the unexpected rebellion of Hilda, the long suffering wife of Rumpole whom he refers to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

The lady in question has demonstrated spunk and spirit in previous volumes and this time she springs forth in a new role in which she is being romantically pursued by Sir Leonard Bullingham, a judge whom Rumpole denounces as the “Mad Bull” who makes his life miserable in court.

Giving Hilda a rare opportunity to emerge as a free spirit, Sir John offers tidbits from her memoirs, which she is of course writing surreptitiously while Rumpole is down at Pommeroy”s wine bar, in which she reveals that her unlikely suitor is trying to persuade her to go the considerable lengths of divorcing her husband to spend her days at tea dances at the Waldorf with Sir Leonard.

Sounding eerily like Rumpole, Hilda observes acidly, “I didn”t fancy myself doing the tango among the teacups, thank you very much, so I turned Leonard down.”

She is more intrigued by Sir Leonard”s offer to assist her to become a barrister, and compete with her husband, a ploy that appeals to both in its affront to Rumpole. And it is that horrifying possibility that leads an offended Rumpole to decide to take silk himself, which unfortunately requires mollifying legally influential personages whom he has previously despised.

It will come as no surprise to faithful Rumpole readers that he ultimately remains the same irrepressible legal miscreant, trudging his way through the London rain from his offices to the courts with no real desire to do anything else. There is, however, a suggestion creeping into the Rumpole saga that he has reached the reluctant conclusion that he has lasting affection for She Who Must Be Obeyed.

There has never been much doubt that the tart-tongued pair are well matched.

The depth of the Rumpole-Hilda partnership has been increasingly explored in recent books, and provides an additional fillip of entertainment as well as welcome relief from the previous steady barrage of criticism about his wife and her excessive use of household cleansers in which Rumpole was inclined to indulge. There is now a concession that although the gruff barrister always triumphs, he occasionally reaches the conclusion that he may be wrong.

And, even more stunning, that She Who Must Be Obeyed may be right.

The current state of affairs in the Rumpole household is summed up when the couple discuss the case of the 12-year-old charged with ASBO. He is acquitted of course, thanks to the talents of his wily attorney. When Rumpole assures her that the youngster”s acquittal was “morally right” despite some legal quibbles, Hilda tells her husband that having to cope with him and Sir Leonard has changed her mind about reading for the Bar. She is going sketching in Cornwall instead.

Happy and relieved, Rumpole finds himself back at his desk continuing to defy his ASBO by “consuming an illegal sandwich and quaffing an illegal glass of wine.”

So the reader can relax and wait for what Rumpole gets up to next time. Not to mention Hilda.

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

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