Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Moritmer


Years ago I used to watch the BBC series Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS.  I think my favorite part was the theme music by John Horovitz.  Rumpole had his own charm, however.  He was the underdog in a system filled with twits and crooks.  Even though he usually comes out on top he goes through a lot of twists and turns to get there.  Of course, there'd be no story if he didn't.

And that is what holds the viewers' and readers' interest.  Not the plot, they're simple enough, but the sparring of wits between Rumpole and the other casts of characters, some who give as good as they get.  I find this far preferable to other British comedies, where, as funny as the heroes (Little Britain) and heroines (Catherin Tate) are, the objects of their wit are little more than cardboard stage props who stare blankly as they are used as a verbal punching bag.  This is true of the first couple of seasons of House.  Hugh Laurie's character got zinged as often as he zunged.  This is not true of later seasons, hence my loss of interest in the show.

But back to the topic at hand.  At one of the many book fairs I'm addicted to attending, I found a novel of Rumpole, so I dug deep into my pocket for a quarter, paid the grateful library staff member ("Our wing of President biographies is saved!") and took it home to read.

What I liked:  The writing.  John Mortimer is as fluid a writer as I've read.  Reading the book was like riding a inflated innertube down a semi-rapid river.  Funny?  Yes.   Satirical?  Very.  I have no idea whether Mortimer's parody of a judicial system run by power grabbing simpletons is accurate (he was a barrister for a while) but it certainly is scathing.

I also like Horace Rumpole.  He is not the all wise oracle who sets the rest straight.  He's really not all that scrupulous himself.  He prefers to make little money getting petty crooks, whom he knows are petty crooks, out of jail, to advancing to circuit judge or something his wife ("She who must be obeyed") and friends would like to see him do.  His reasons are apparently that the judicial system is a group of dishonest power mongers.  Him?  Why he'll just stick to rescuing guilty car thieves and house burglars because he has his self-respect to preserve, or whatever internal reason motivates him.

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror was  written recently after 9/11 and Mortimer no doubt wished his writing to be current and relevant so he decided to write a book about a Pakistani living in London who is accused of terrorism.  I suppose Mortimer's point is to calm everybody down,  to stop looking at our eastern brothers and sisters as dangerous world up-heavers.  The problem is he uses such annoying stick puppets to do it.

Everyone in the book knows this man is a terrorist.  Why?  Because he's from Pakistan, doggone it! From Rumpole's wife to the other lawyers, the judge... EVERYbody knows this man is dangerous because aren't all swarthy members of the human race dangerous? This is the pugnacious attitude everyone character in the book except Rumpole adheres to. The only clear head is Rumpole who chooses to defend the man.

The tale weaves in and out and takes the reader down a pretty good path of uncertainty.  Is the man a terrorist?  Isn't he?  You just don't know till the very end.  The plot development is very good and if the supporting cast could have been portrayed as rational human beings I could have enjoyed the story far more than I did.  As it is I was left with a fifty-fifty feeling that I'll pick up another Rumpole book.

There are hundreds of Rumpole books and Mortimer eventually earned himself a knight hood.  I'd like to read some of his earlier works and see if they contain the same politically correct slant or not.


  1. I saw the television show a couple of times and it seemed very good. It is surprising that the series went on for so long!

    I agree with you that characters who give it back are so much more interesting. I also agree that trite, too predictable situations as you describe in this book distract from both the story as well as any chance to learn.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I am torn whether I will read another Rumpole book. On the one hand, his writing is quick and funny. On the other hand one dimensional characters are annoying.


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