Rotund, orotund, irreverent Horace Rumpole is, as he proudly proclaims, an Old Bailey Hack, a British barrister who specializes in criminal trials. He has no love for The Law. Details of recent statues bore him. His delight comes from combat, from advocacy, from tearing paper to distract the jury as the prosecutor speaks. To undo the state and its minions, in all their power, glory and complacency, is his sweetest joy.
Rumpole puts it simply; he writes to entertain "those who, like myself, have found in British justice a lifelong subject of harmless fun." That I say "Rumpole writes" is a deserved compliment to author John Mortimer. These stories, six in each volume, rapidly take on a reality of their own. They portray the days of a trial lawyer acutely. Their considerable wit, their ironies and satires, underscore a sense that nothing is quite as it should be, and that judgments meant to be immutable are founded on sand.
Famed trial lawyers in the United States typically issue memoirs containing equal parts of self-advertisement and braggadocio. Rumpole is more honest, more comic and more true. Mortimer, also known as Rumpole, skillfully counterpoints the lives of Rumpole's fellows in chambers, his family and his clients. Their parallels are striking; their entanglements, frequent.
Mrs. Hilda Rumpole, to whom Rumpole refers most often as "She Who Must Be Obeyed," forms an unholy alliance with Marigold Featherstone, wife of a preeminent stuffed shirt whom Rumpole cannot abide. Jim Timson, scion of a criminal clan that brings Rumpole to the criminal courts with metronomic regularity, chooses the profession of his father while Rumpole's son rejects that of his. A member of Parliament charged with rape throws his case in the midst of trial -- he is willing to endure a tangible prison to escape the more confining ambitions of his wife.
Out of court or in it, defendants do not behave as they should. Nor, Rumpole might add, do witnesses, prosecutors or judges. All conspire to prove that ours is a government of men and women, and only by coincidence, of laws.
These men and women form a diverse lot. Miss Phyllida Trant represents the advance guard of women at the law. Judges Bullingham and Vosper prove Honore Daumier more portraitist than caricaturist. Rumpole's fellow barristers disdain his hat, his wig ("bought secondhand from an ex Chief Justice of Tonga in the early thirties"), and his taste for criminal defense work.
Tale by tale, with Rumpole at the center, the galaxy of characters evolves. This evolution is a prime pleasure of these books. In "Rumpole of the Bailey," Rumpole's son Nick, his hope for succession at the bar, finishes school, chooses sociology over law, marries an American and departs for the United States. Rumpole sabotages Miss Trant's first prosecution, then comes to look on her as a protege. Guthrie Featherstone, member of Parliament and queen's counsel, a paragon of the conventional ambition against which Rumpole rebels, by that same ambition wins the post of Head of Chambers -- for which Rumpole, by seniority, was destined.
In "The Trials of Rumpole," Nick, Miss Trant, Featherstone and the rest return. Nick, with the connivance of "She Who Must Be Obeyed," attempts to entice his father into leaving the beloved Old Bailey for Baltimore. Miss Trant becomes pregnant by a fellow barrister and, after securing his pledge to cooperate in child care, marries him. And, in a marvelously satisfying turn-about, Rumpole ends a brief flight from convention by Featherstone, condemns him to remain as Head of Chambers, and secures, inviolate and unique, his own status as resident anarchist. That triumph, like most Rumpole achieves, is a mixed one; it begins from the premise that Rumpole himself will never win the post to which he confines Featherstone.
In the life of Rumpole, irony and tragedy regularly mute triumph. Rumpole brilliantly and aggressively crossexamines a woman accusing his client of rape; his performance alienates his son's fiance, who has come specially to admire his technique in court. Rumpole wins acquittal for a client accused of murder, but the client is desolate; with his acquittal, he has learned that his brothers framed him for a crime one of them committed, and chose Rumpole as the barrister -- seedy, with an anciet wig, and a tattered hat -- who would insure a conviction. Perhaps most disturbing, Rumpole defends an actress who has shot her actor husband, and learns how well the language and techniques of drama -- creating illusion instead of ascertaining truth -- fit his craft.
The final story of the two books, "Rumpole and the Age for Retirement," pits Rumpole against family and fellows as they urge his graceful exit from the only stage in which he revels. The counterpoint is the Timson clan, who have framed an aging uncle because the quality of his criminal acts has declined. Rumpole foils that plot and, quoting as always from the "Oxford Book of English Verse" (the Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch edition, of course), his own retirement as well. "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield": For Rumpole, and for us who await his return, that is unmixed triumph.