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Rumpole Rests His Case by John Mortimer

Legal fiction, Viking (hardcover), 2001, 211 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

John Mortimer is getting on in years and this book's jacket blurb warns that this may be the last collection of stories featuring the bumbling British barrister Horace Rumpole.  If so, Rumpole goes out with a bang, as these are highly entertaining tales, fully on a par with the eleven other volumes describing Rumpole's adventures within the English justice system.

Rumpole is a henpecked buffoon given to bombast and unwarranted attacks of self-importance.  He is an Old Bailey hack who answers to only one higher authority: the presumption of innocence.  And because he is a defense lawyer, he has a seedy class of associates, petty criminals and ingrates who refuse to recognize him on the street lest they be taken back by  "mystic chords of memory" to their most inglorious moments, those in which they were caught and charged with crimes they most likely committed.  Rumpole's legal colleagues in chambers are all too dim, too politically correct, or too upwardly mobile for his disheveled tastes.  The judges before which he appears are pompous, bloated windbags who curry favor with the prosecutors
and cut him off dismissively in mid-cross examination.  Rumpole, of course, relates each of these tales in the first person, a classic example of the unreliable narrator forcing the reader to peruse with a skeptical eye.

Rumpole's home life is just as shabby.  His wife Hilda is known to him (and him alone) as She Who Must Be Obeyed.  They live in a decaying flat ponderously called Froxbury Mansions, and Hilda's relentless moves toward self-improvement and spousal improvement continually interrupt Rumpole's cherished pastimes: a good bottle of plonk and a fat stogie, preferably
experienced simultaneously.  One wonders if Rumpole doesn't run to the Old Bailey, where he has been passed over by younger mouthpieces of lesser talents, with the desperation of a lesser-of-two-evils choice.

Why, then, do we love this scabrous character?  What is it about Rumpole and his inept defenses that endear him to readers and make him almost as beloved a character in British crime fiction as Sherlock Holmes?

It is the genius of John Mortimer (a former Old Bailey barrister himself) that endows Rumpole with a heart, that allows readers to see through his cynical musings and attach themselves to the underlying decency that Rumpole so feebly yet unhesitatingly embodies.  Rumpole is a buffoon who registers more truth than the stuffed shirt seriosos who mock him.  He's a little like the law itself; he may win a case in spite of himself, yet the godlike authorial Mortimer ensures that a higher notion of justice is always secured.  And Rumpole is au courant.  In "Rumpole and the Asylum Seekers," he defends an Afghan refugee who has run afoul of the British immigration courts, and inadvertently breaks up a ring of desperadoes who smuggle hapless immigrants for profit.

In each Rumpole tale, two parallel tracks often occur.  There is his case, of course, and a seemingly unrelated domestic squabble between the artless attorney and She Who Must Be Obeyed.  In the above-mentioned tale, when Rumpole is not tracking down smuggled Afghans in shipments of mango chutney with breathing holes drilled in the boxes, he is fighting a rearguard action against Hilda's intended remodeling of their flat.  The wily Rumpole uses Hilda's own inflated sense of class taste to prevent their sitting room from being equipped with a conversation pit, mystical crystals, and exotic lighting by s.  Rumpole's popularity comes from his duality, a duality reassuring to everyone.  It is possible for a self-absorbed fool and a wise, good-hearted sage to be one in the same, to inhabit the same personality simultaneously.  If Rumpole can do it, so can we.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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