Thursday, January 20, 2005

Rumpole's greatest triumph: Worth waiting for?



John Mortimer’s free-spirited barrister Horace Rumpole, self-proclaimed “Old Bailey hack,” has been around for many years now, both in print and in a series of dramatizations on PBS’s “Mystery” series (with the late Leo McKern as Rumpole). Anyone who is familiar with Rumpole knows that his finest hour was his victory in the case of the Penge Bungalow murders, which he carried on “alone and without a leader.” No more details of the case were ever given, however, until now, when Mortimer tells the Penge Bungalow murders story in novel form.

All the rest of the Rumpole saga has appeared in the form of short stories, and the Penge Bungalow case, although greater in length, still has a short story feel. The aging Rumpole sits in his room in Chambers writing his memoirs, with obligatory appearances by such old friends as Claude Erskine-Brown, Mizz Liz Probert, and Soapy-Sam Ballard, Rumpole’s current head of chambers. Of course, Rumpole’s wife Hilda is very much in evidence, as well, and in this novel we learn how Rumpole met his wife and what form their courtship took. Indeed, one of the pleasures of The Penge Bungalow Murders is that we experience Rumpole’s first meeting with a number of continuing characters: Mr. Bernard, the solicitor who often sends him briefs and helps him with his investigations, the numerous members of the Timson clan, who supply Rumpole with so much of his work, and, of course, Hilda, a.k.a. “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” without whom the Rumpole stories would lose much of their savor. We also meet Rumpole’s first head of chambers, C.H. Wystan, father of Hilda, Albert Handyside, Rumpole’s first clerk, and T.C. Rowley, Rumpole’s pupil master at Number 4 Equity Court, also known as Uncle Tom. It will surprise no one to learn that Uncle Tom was practicing his golf in chambers even when Rumpole was a “white wig,” a novice barrister.

However, the focus of the novel is the story of the Penge Bungalow murders, the killing of two former RAF flyers after a reunion celebration. The son of one of the victims is the alleged killer, and C.H. Wystan has been briefed for the defense. Somehow, young Rumpole gets a brief as Wystan’s junior in the case, and the fun begins. The presumption of innocence, the “golden thread” that runs through all the Rumpole stories, is very much in evidence here. Wystan, convinced his client is guilty, only wants to go through the motions, while Rumpole is hot to prove the client’s innocence. No one will be surprised at the outcome, but it’s fun getting there, as always.

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders is painless reading, and Rumpole fans will enjoy having various odd corners of their Rumpole knowledge filled in at last. Great literature it is not—the Rumpole formula is very much in evidence—but it’s a fun read nevertheless. The only shame is that Leo McKern is not around to bring this story to life on the screen as he did with most of the earlier ones.


16 Comments:

At 3:49 PM, Blogger James Johnston said...

I used to do a lot of criminal defense, and I always liked the Rumpole stories for their essential truth. By that I don't mean that justice prevails, but that (1) criminal defense can be fun, sometimes (2) it doesn't pay well, and (3) lacks prestige in the profession.

I can't say I waited for the account of the Penge Bungalow murder case - I was never sure Mortimer had anything in mind besides the title - but I snapped it up as soon as I discovered it had been published.

It is a standard Rumpole procedural, a bit diluted by Mortimer's need to tie up loose ends - but a good read for fans. Non-fans won't understand many of the references.

 
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