CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
VOL. 8, No. 19
The Canadian edition
shows a Rumpole
clearly based upon
the late actor Leo McKern.
The U.S. edition
obscures the face
Rumpole of the Bailey
faces great challenges
By RON MILLER
Bless dear John Mortimer for continuing to write his stories about Horace Rumpole, beloved barrister of England's Old Bailey, even though the long-running TV series about Rumpole has been gone ever since actor Leo McKern died.
Mortimer always wrote the TV scripts first, then adapted them for the printed page. When McKern, the only actor ever to play Rumpole, decided to retire from the role, then made his retirement permanent by dying, Mortimer had to completely overhaul his creative approach to the stories if he wanted to go one writing new adventures for Rumpole.
Thank heavens he finally answered public demand and starting doing Rumpole yarns again. The post-TV Rumpole stories have been as marvelous as ever and all you need to do is close your eyes and picture Leo McKern speaking Rumpole's lines again and everything flows very smoothly.
I can assure you that's the way to tackle the new Rumpole novel--"Rumpole and the Reign of Terror" (Penguin/Viking), which I bought in Vancouver, B.C., at the inflated Canadian price ($36, minus a retailer's 20 percent discount) and devoured eagerly in just a few sittings.
This is a wonderful book, so relevant to American mystery fans because it finds Rumpole defending an accused terrorist who's actually an innocent Pakistani immigrant who has become a distinguished physician in London. Under Tony Blair's reign in England, security has been tightened much the way it has in the USA under the various webs of the Homeland Security rules and Rumpole discovers cherished civil rights now are being discarded by his government with the excuse it's necessary to protect all English citizens from immigrants who want to kill them.
Though Mortimer's approach to this very serious issue is mostly comic, we all can be sure that Rumpole's efforts to defend Dr. Khan, as amusing as they are, really are reminding us that real tyrants are anxious to repress our rights if we don't stand up and defend them when they're challenged.
As Rumpole soon learns, it isn't easy to fight for justice when doing so threatens to ruin your career. Before he decides to defend Dr. Khan, Rumpole has been pushing his luck by remaining an active barrister past the normal retirement age for lawyers in England. He also has always depended heavily on the income he derives from defending one very large family of petty crooks--the nefarious Timsons.
It turns out that Dr. Khan is married to beautiful Tiffany Timson, so Rumpole most naturally figures he needs to accept the risks by agreeing to defend a member of the family that accounts for so much of his regular income. But, shockingly, it seems the rest of the Timson family is dead set against him having anything to do with Dr. Khan, especially Will Timson, who wanted to marry cousin Tiffany himself and has always had it in for Dr. Khan for that reason alone.
So, Rumpole quickly finds his income cut to practically nothing. At the same time, the general public is avoiding him because he's defending an obvious villain. As if that were not enough, he finds out that his old courthouse rival Claude Erskine-Brown, a dim bulb incompetent, has been appointed to a post that puts him in position to "supervise" Rumpole's defense of Dr. Khan in federal court.
It's a good thing Rumpole isn't aware of one other cosmic development in his private life: His wife Hilda, aka "She Who Must Be Obeyed," has begun what appears to be a love affair with Leonard "Mad Bull" Bullingham, the newly-appointed judge who will hear the case. As you can see, Mortimer has stacked virtually all the cards against Rumpole. Will there be enough "Cheateau Embankment" in reserve at Pommeroy's Wine Bar for Rumpole to drown all his likely sorrows?
But as those who have followed Horace Rumpole for the past few decades already know, he is at his blowhard best when he seems to have absolutely no chance to come out a winner. Rumpole grits his teeth and charges into the legal fray with his usual "damn the torpedoes" confidence.
Mortimer makes this new book a genuine celebration of the skills of Rumpole, who seems determined to finish his own memoirs soon, unaware that "She Who Must Be Obeyed" is now writing her own memoirs on a secret laptop in a closet at their home, equally determined to tell her side of the Rumpole saga before it's too late.
Horace Rumpole is truly one of the classic literary characters of his era and, though his place in the mystery firmament has never been too secure, it's great to have him hanging around, doing things the old-fashioned way as long as his brilliant creator still has the energy to keep him going.
I say, "Long live Rumpole and the prinicples for which he stands!"
©2007 by Ron Miller. The book covers are courtesy of Penguin and Viking books. This column first posted May 14, 2007.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.
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