Saturday, April 1, 2023

Rumpole of the Bailey

From "Remembering Rumpole":
Horace Rumpole deserves a place alongside Bertie Wooster, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and Father Brown as one of the best creations in all of British popular fiction. ....

Shortly after [John] Mortimer’s death, Christopher Hitchens wrote of him in Vanity Fair: “It is given to very few people to create one imperishable fictional person, and then to see that very person take on life and flesh as if animated by Pygmalion. In the name and figure of Horace Rumpole, old rogue and old hero of the Old Bailey, as impersonated—no, incarnated—by Leo McKern, we have someone for the ages, someone who will be available at need to our inner eye and ear every time it is demonstrated once again that ‘the law is an ass.’”

Likewise, P.D. James once noted that, “Rumpole, like Jeeves and Sherlock Holmes, is immortal.” ....

Rumpole, though far from perfect, is by and large an admirable barrister. And his adventures aren’t as predictable as those of, say, Perry Mason. Rumpole, not infrequently, loses in court. Sometimes his victories merely consist of getting a charge slightly reduced. In Rumpole and the Old Boy Net, he clears his clients of a blackmail charge but they are nonetheless convicted of running a house of prostitution. In more than one story, he acquits a client of a murder charge only to find out later that his client was actually guilty (Rumpole often represents clients he believes to be guilty, but he will not represent anyone who openly admits his guilt; so long as a client insists that he or she is innocent, Rumpole feels duty-bound to try to prove their innocence in court, even if he suspects they might be guilty). In Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas, Rumpole is outfoxed by a prosecutor who uses Rumpole’s alcoholism to defeat him court. In Rumpole and the Golden Thread, he travels to the fictional African country of Neranga to defend an old student of his who has been charged with murder. Rumpole wins an acquittal by using a defense that ultimately gets his client murdered.

As noted, Rumpole has many failings as a husband, lawyer, and provider. He admits that he cheated in order to pass the bar exam. He hasn’t saved a penny for retirement, he occasionally bounces checks, and boasts that he never pays a bill on time. But his many small faults are outweighed by his major virtues: sympathy for the underprivileged, a passion for justice, and a determination to keep his clients out of jail. ....

The stories are clever and witty. And, as Mortimer himself pointed out, each individual story generally contains three different strands braided together—a trial to be won, a domestic problem with Hilda to be resolved, and some sort of contretemps in Chambers that must be confronted. But probably the best reason to read the Rumpole stories is Rumpole himself. He is endlessly fascinating and his adventures (almost always told in the first person, though occasionally he allows another character to fill in the blanks) are replete with epigrammatic observations about life, love, literature, and, above all, the law:
  • I’m not sure that I like cast iron alibis. They’re the sort that sink quickest, to the bottom of the sea.
  • You know what we always say in Court? Listen to the questions. The questions are so much more important than the answers.
  • Contempt of Court should be a silent exercise, like meditation.
Rumpole on Amazon Prime Video

Kevin Mims, "Remembering Rumpole," Quillette, April 1, 2023.

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