Rumpole and the Primrose Path

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The beleaguered barrister of the Old Bailey returns in the twelfth Rumpole volume. A good Horace Rumpole story offers rich human comedy, sharp verbal wit, a dramatic courtroom scene, and usually a surprise or two in plotting. By that yardstick, these stories measure up well. “The Primrose Path,” nominated for best short story by the Mystery Writers of America, follows Rumpole from his convalescence at a rest home after a heart attack to the rejuvenating life at work and even at home with wife Hilda, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed. Along the way he uncovers some dark doings at the Primrose Path Home and brings to justice one of the least likely suspects.

Fans of the series will especially savor “Rumpole and the New Year’s Resolutions” because familiar characters turn over new leafs in funny, unexpected ways. “You don’t think I’m bossy, do you, Rumpole,” asks the imposing Hilda. Her question stuns the glib narrator-hero into uncharacteristic silence. Rumpole’s own gentlemanly resolution (enforced on him by Hilda) leads him to offer his tube seat to a woman clinging to a strap and has him note something that much later becomes a case-cracking clue. This multi-purpose scene is a reminder of the ease with which author John Mortimer simultaneously makes readers laugh, slips in plot points, elicits drama, and most of all, fosters sympathy for the wise and weary Rumpole.

The other stories have Rumpole defending a lawyer-hating policeman, exposing the motives behind a celebrity tycoon’s nuisance suit, struggling with a religious zealot accused of murder, and pondering the possibility of redemption. In them all Mortimer shows a finesse few other mystery authors can claim.