- - Friday, November 25, 2011

By John Mortimer
Viking, $30, 503 pages

The title of this delightful collection of Sir John Mortimer’s classic Rumpole stories itself testifies to the enduring qualities of these stories, told in the voice of the Old Bailey Hack barrister. That distinctive voice - crusty, orotund, pointed - is key to what makes these tales such a pleasure to read. Mortimer wrote that although he wanted to create this kind of shabby old dinosaur of the London criminal bar, it was not until he heard the particular plaint of an older colleague that he knew he had found that all-important voice, from which all else would flow.

Horace Rumpole certainly speaks many a speech trippingly on his tongue the way that his silver-tongued creator did when addressing judges and juries. And they share not only a love of English poetry, but an uncanny knack for coming up with just the right quotation to suit the person or occasion at hand. A perennial favorite, from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello,” occurs in this volume in the appropriately titled “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation.” It is quoted in full, and ends with the familiar:

“[H]e that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.”

No matter the case, or London’s weather, perennially gloomy but occasionally glorious, Rumpole will trot out the perfect line, if not from Shakespeare, then from Tennyson or some other beloved bard, just to give you a glimpse of that poetic soul buried deep within all those world-weary layers of hard-bitten cynicism.

In this aspect of his character, he shows the softer side of his creator, whom he mirrors, too, in a robust love for the ancient British legal traditions that guarantee fair jurisprudence and protection from undue interference by government into the lives of individual citizens.

Rumpole and Mortimer share a hearty contempt for such nostrums as political correctness, and they delight in what free speech can encompass - and the limits to which it can extend. This attitude is key to what many found surprising in Mortimer’s last years: his strident opposition to the banning of foxhunting. But this was no mere posturing or trying to shock. Rather, it was central to his respect for tradition and, most of all, consonant with his love of freedom of choice.

So there really was no contradiction that the man who had advocated successfully for the publication of the unexpurgated “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was, four decades on, all for what Oscar Wilde so memorably termed “the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable.” In Mortimer’s view, many might indeed find “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and the practice of riding to hounds rebarbative, but that was no reason for the authorities to prevent people who wanted to experience both freely from doing so.

One of the delights of the later Rumpole stories, written during Tony Blair’s rather intrusive mode of governance, is the barrister’s fury at the erosion of civil liberties by new Labor. For Horace Rumpole, Magna Carta is not just an enduring symbol of British justice, it is an actual covenant, its protections to be treasured, protected and defended with all his might and skill.

As barrister Ann Mallalieu, who worked with Mortimer, points out in her useful, short introduction to “Forever Rumpole“:

John was more successful at the Bar than Rumpole ever was, taking silk, being head of chambers, a Bencher of his Inn and instructed in some of the highest-profile cases of his day … [but] John Mortimer, like Horace Rumpole, was not really interested in the finer points of law. If he had to conduct legal argument, he did so with skill, but without relish. What really interested him about being a barrister were the people and jury advocacy at which he truly excelled.”

This shared gusto shines through all the Rumpole tales and is a large part of why we enjoy them as much as their author seems to have. This excellent sampling will encourage most readers to go on and read more of the many still available. John Mortimer, sadly, is no longer with us, but Rumpole forever will be.

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



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