Long-time fans of PBS’s Mystery series require no formal introduction to Horace Rumpole, the sixtyish and eccentric British barrister of Old Bailey Criminal Court fame. Our Horace is equal parts Falstaff and Clarence Darrow, and is as likely to quote Wordsworth in a murder trial summation as cite legal precedent. Since the mid- 1970s, John Mortimer–a divorce attorney–has authored twelve Rumpole short story collections as well as two novels; the short stories were the basis of the tv series. Although actor Leo McKern, who played Mortimer’s protagonist for three decades, died a few years ago, the author apparently intends to keep our Horace on the Old Bailey court calendar to hector pompous judges and bedevil priggish prosecutors for another few sessions. This second novel propels Horace into international headlines as he defends a Pakistani doctor accused of aiding al-Qaeda. Rumpole’s mantra of “The presumption of innocence is the golden thread that weaves through English justice” is not only ignored but spurned because of changes in legal procedure that favor the Crown: changes adopted because of a terrorist attack on London’s public transportation system. After our hero’s arguments, “she [the Judge] looked at me with all the eager interest of a vicar’s wife hearing her husband repeat a sermon she had heard twenty times before.” Fans must remember that Rumpole, unlike Perry Mason, doesn’t win all his cases, so we never know the outcome until the final page. Most of the chambers regulars reunite for this installment: “Soapy Sam” Ballard, self-righteous Head of Chambers; Fig Newton, sneezy and sniffling private eye; Judge Bullingham, aptly nicknamed the Mad Bull; opera-loving and snooty Claude Erskine-Brown. Faithful readers will miss ancient Uncle Tom, a dotty but garrulous attorney who practiced his golf game in the clerk’s office and chambers hallway. But readers are awarded a double dollop of Doodoo Mackintosh, Hilda’s old school friend, who visits to dispense unwanted advice and servings of her inedible cheesy bits (a running joke in this series). Those entertained by the numerous domestic conflicts in the Rumpole household (Horace calls wife Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed) will be amused by Mortimer’s choice of organizing this novel. Each chapter alternates between a chapter in Horace’s memoirs and one in Hilda’s memoirs. The pair’s differences are contrasted almost point by point. We also discover Hilda has a life beyond Horace, including a mild flirtation with the Mad Bull! Why an aging, bewigged barrister has become such a popular character in the United States is difficult to explain. Mortimer’s right-on satire of the legal system? Memorable characters? Plots based on contemporary issues? Then again, perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
4 out of 4 Stars
Reviewed By: Michael Shinn, Academic Learning Center/Disability Services