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rumpole for the defence

7 july 2022

John Mortimer started to publish Rumpole stories, based on his television series, in 1978; so Rumpole for the Defence (1982), which apparently partly or wholly reprints material from Regina v. Rumpole (1981), is among the earlier collections. It was the easiest to check out of my local library, so it's where I started.

I don't know about the corresponding TV episodes, but some of these stories are less inspired than others. "Rumpole and the Gentle Art of Blackmail" has some gentle satire of Oxbridge types, but the plot gimmick is creaky. So too in "Rumpole and the Rotten Apple," with contrasts of barristers' office life to the criminal milieu where Rumpole, for all his Oxford pedigree and his taste in claret, feels more at home. But the Perry-Masonish twist in "Rotten Apple" is ponderous.

One expects Rumpole to win almost all his cases, and in this book he does. In "Rumpole and the Expert Witness," he helps acquit a man accused of murdering his wife, by destroying said expert witness on cross-examination. But does he really win the case? What if the expert witness were a step ahead of Rumpole, setting herself up for her own destruction? Rumpole does lose, however, in the mean-spirited little story "Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas." In "Rumpole and the Dear Departed," he bounces back; a nursing-home director who is not as crazy as she looks channels instructions from the Beyond that help Rumpole win a lawsuit over a will in her favor – one of Rumpole's rare excursions outside criminal law.

"Rumpole and the Confession of Guilt" takes a longer view of its protagonist. Rumpole looks back at the case he worked on the day his son Nick left London for America and a career as an academic sociologist. The case involves an unjustly accused black teenager who has been railroaded into confessing; until Rumpole twigs to the police deception, he is not sympathetic with his confessed-stabber client, but roars into action once the facts become clear. The story is more about the delicate and distant relations that prevail among Nick, Rumpole, and Hilda (mother and wife to them respectively).

The best story in the collection, though, is the last. "Rumpole and the Boat People" ("those who take to the water in yellow oilskins and sailing dinghies," Rumpole explains [170]) features an implausible but satisfying mystery plot and plenty of arch observations on the merits of dieting, and the possibility of changing one's essential identity). It almost rescues an uneven and overall forgettable set of crime stories, more interesting as vehicles for Rumpole's wry observations than for their narrative appeal.

Mortimer, John. Rumpole for the Defence. 1981, 1982. New York: Penguin, 1984.