John Mortimer, who claimed to have been inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, wrote dozens of humorous detective stories and a few novels featuring Horace Rumpole, who specializes in crime cases—such as shoplifting and petty burglaries—that his colleagues shun. Though his wife frets about his failure to rise to Queen’s Counsel, he is satisfied with his lot, perhaps because he usually prevails over his nominal superiors, including judges and Queen’s Counsels. Readers quickly become familiar with his rejuvenating visits to Pommeroy’s Wine Bar, where he drinks cheap claret; his penchant for small cigars whose ashes cloak his weskit; his love for simple food like steak-and-kidney pie; his habit of quoting from William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth; and his dislike of ceremony.
The stories and novels have multiple plots, professional and personal, the latter either a domestic crisis between the old barrister and his wife or a problem with the courts or a colleague. The personal elements not only entertain and provide filler for an occasionally simple crime plot but also are complementary, offering a different take on the same theme. In addition, they further characterize Rumpole, an unlikely hero who selfishly rescues the reputations and careers of hapless colleagues and whose insight and slyness enable him to shape people and events to his own ends. It is in the courtroom, however, where he really comes alive and is most happy. His advocacy, often on behalf of unworthy clients, does not rely as much on legal knowledge as on detection skills and an ability to judge character, and he is an exemplary cross-examiner. A moral center, sophisticated comic voice, and timeliness are hallmarks of the stories.
Mortimer’s vast practical legal experience is obvious throughout, and Rumpole is his creator’s spokesperson on such issues as political correctness, animal rights activism, euthanasia, penal reform, and British politics. Though Mortimer used a standard template (for easy adaptation to television), he also provided variety. For instance, in Rumpole à la Carte, a 1990 collection, the crusty barrister is put in unfamiliar milieus. In the title story, Hilda’s expatriate cousin takes them to a three-star restaurant where Rumpole must deal with what he calls the curse of nouvelle cuisine. In “Rumpole at Sea,” Hilda books them on a cruise over his...
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