Somebody Done Somebody Wrong

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
John Mortimer

You can always tell when I have too much going on because the only books I  finish are lighter fare. That puts you in an enviable position since, unlike Mrs. AHC, you needn’t deal with the stacks of unfinished tomes proceeding at a snail’s pace.

Marie Kondo could have a field day here (though I wonder about her place in a culture which invented the word for acquired but unread books).

Still, even when dabbling in the precincts of popular culture I like to think I bring a certain curatorial eye to what’s read. It may be popular but that don’t make it junk, to use the vernacular.

And so I’ve been visiting my old friend Horace, he of Old Bailey fame. Horace is Horace Rumpole, a barrister and the inimitable creation of John Mortimer, a man who served us all well when he put down Blackstone and took up the pen. The attraction of Rumpole has always been that he’s an outsider, as irked by England‘s built-into-the-rules class system as any Yank might be.

Rumpole–he’s most often Rumpole; his given name is used mostly in entreaty or in private–is not a bomb-thrower. He’s more inclined to prick balloons of self-inflation or show up his betters. Yet he is, in his own way, a patriot.

Rumpole quotes Wordsworth and the Bard, cites Magna Carta and stands up for the common man, even if the common man is, most often, a criminal. As a young lawyer, Rumpole bested a more experienced attorney, a QC to boot, in a murder trial, acting alone and without benefit of a leader. His disdain for all the honorifics of the bar begin there. He wants to keep all parties honest, not burn the house down.

John Mortimer (l) and Leo McKern as Rumpole.

That’s because Rumpole’s practice, such as it is, depends on the criminal class and one extended, hapless family in particular, the Timsons. That clan figures in this book which differs from earlier volumes in that it is a novel. From the outset, Rumpole books collected a number of stories each of which wrapped up neatly with a win or loss.

Usually there was some thread loosely connecting the stories in time so that you knew, despite Rumpole’s ageless character, that time was passing. And there were backstories and career glories aplenty to aid in conveying that motion. Until  now, though, I hadn’t read a Rumpole novel, though I gather there are at least three and could be as many as five.

How does our hero fare with all that extra space? Just fine, thank you, which probably has to do with the space being about the same as required for half a dozen tales. It’s not as though because the form changed Rumpole became young Werther.  What the extra space allowed for was a bit more intricacy in the plot, and an additional voice.

That voice belongs to Hilda Rumpole, Horace’s espoused wife who has always been present but never prominent. In her own way, she’s the Vera Peterson/Lars Lindstrom of legal storytelling, serving as a convenient foil for Rumpole who can suggest all sorts of consequences emanate from trying to satisfy the woman he refers to as She Who Must be Obeyed.  It would be mean-spirited if he didn’t rely on her and even, in his own grumpy way, dote on her. They are, in the truest sense, helpmeets.

You be the judge. Just be advised this ridiculous regalia is par for the course.

In this book, Hilda has taken up writing her memoirs, though the result is more a diary-like commentary on what’s going on with Rumpole and herself. It’s the latter that matters. Hilda has met, socially, Leonard Bullingham, the Red Bull. Leonard is a judge, elevated during this tale to the highest court where judges wear scarlet robes with their perukes.

Recently divorced, Bullingham takes a shine to Hilda who has claims on legal royalty status, her father having been head of Rumpole’s chambers. Leonard becomes besotted and that lends its own air of uncertainty to a tale in which Rumpole is, for most of the going, far behind the curve.

The story–and I won’t give away too much–deals with Dr. Khan, an immigrant, but non-citizen, from Pakistan. Dr. Khan has been arrested and accused of terrorism, a state of affairs that quickly lands him in a parallel universe of separate prisons, kangaroo courts and abridged rights.

This being a post 9-11 world, and Britain being the close cousin of the US, there are any number of government functionaries available to explain the necessity of new approaches. Rumpole, with his reliance on fountain pens and his belief in the eternal righteousness of the English legal tradition couldn’t possibly understand. Things are different now and to remain as we are we must destroy who we were. You’ve heard this before; it plays daily on a Twitter-stream emanating from a city on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

Real estate, it’s always real estate.

Just to make life interesting, Dr. Khan is married to a Timson. Over the years I’ve come to think of the Timsons as a mousey lot. Tiffany is the un-Timson, a dark, exotic beauty out of a Disney cartoon. She’s so alluring that her distant cousin, Will, pursued her ardently. (No tut-tutting, now; America has its Roosevelts.)

A clannish lot, and wedded to their vision of eternal Albion no less strongly than Rumpole is to his, the Timsons close ranks. Khan is a Paki and so guilty with no presumed sense of innocence or right to a fair trial before a jury in open court. In a moment of stunning irony the clan descends on Rumpole with an ultimatum–it’s him or us–and the Rumpole income stream becomes quite shaky.

Mortimer penned this volume near the end of his life. It’s clear to me we share similar worries about losing your soul while acting to protect it. Books are neat things, safe because things work out. Except when they don’t.

Here’s hoping we have a bookish ending.





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