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Books

Friday’s Forgotten Books: Rumpole of the Bailey

10.02.13 | Comment?

Horace Rumpole, barrister, was not hard to find. The self-proclaimed “Old Bailey hack” was frequently at work there in London’s Central Criminal Court, or at the Uxbridge Magistrate’s court, or meeting with a client in Wormwood scrubs. He could be found – rarely – in his chambers at Equity Court, in the fictitious Outer Temple, and more frequently at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar nearby. Sometimes he even returned home to his wife Hilda, whom he referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

In addition, back in the 1980s, he could also be found on the shelves of any bookstore you happened to enter. Though not much spoken of today, the Rumpole books by John Mortimer sold by the bushel.

The books are mostly collections of short stories, many adapted by author John Mortimer from his own scripts for the British television series. Rumpole is presented as an experienced barrister still clinging to a low rung on the ladder of his profession, and not expecting to rise much further. He’s a confirmed blowhard and cynic, and derives much of his pleasure in life from needling the judges and opposing counsel he faces each day.

No description could possibly convey the utter hilarity of these stories. Rare indeed is the situation that Rumpole takes seriously, though he does in the end generally come through for his clients (sometimes despite their wishes!). And in addition to the humor there are moments of melancholy and outrage, as his clients circumvent justice or fall unfairly into its implacable grasp. Rumpole himself rarely despairs, but continues to soldier on, despite at least one forced retirement, as well as cases with titles such as “Rumpole’s Last Case” and “Rumpole and the Angel of Death”.

You can really start anywhere, but if possible it’s best to read the stories in chronological order, as the cast of continuing characters come and go, get married, become judges or take silk as Queen’s Counsel, and so forth. Through it all Rumpole is unchanged, as enduring as England itself, and frequently as silly.

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