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Rumpole Rests His Case by John Mortimer (Viking Press, 211 pages, $24.95) Fellow fans of Horace Rumpole, Old Bailey hack: November 2002 brings good news — seven new stories in the first new book since 1996. True Rumpolians will read this latest book regardless of my review, recalling fondly how it all began in 1978, in the first book, Rumpole of the Bailey:
I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed); . . . I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, fingerprints, and forgery by typewriter; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (there’s not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday in the Costa Brava), in order to write my reconstructions of some of my recent triumphs (including a number of recent disasters) in the Courts of Law, hoping thereby to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must Be Obeyed, and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a life-long subject of harmless fun.

Originally envisioned as merely a television series, there followed 11 books, four volumes of reprints, and several additional television series. With the seven in this latest book, there are 51 standard-length episodes and one full-length book. I resist the temptation to write a retrospective, however compelling the facts. Sir John Mortimer is 79, has difficulty getting around and is losing his sight. His publisher hints this will be the final Rumpole offering. Mortimer dissented during an interview in The London Times, cleverly eschewing the quasi-elegiac title and its namesake episode. In that episode, Rumpole collapses in the Old Bailey, prompting Justice Bullingham to explain: ” ‘He’s tried that one on me before.’ ” While hospitalized in the Princess Margaret ward, Rumpole gives a mock summation for his fellow ward patients involving an actual prisoner-defendant in the next bed. Rumpole wonders at its close whether he would be called upon to actually do the case at the Old Bailey: “ Who knows? For the moment all I can say is, ‘The defense rests.’ “ But others have already written fini. Last spring the Rumpole Society, a 1984 American creation of San Francisco Bay stalwart Rumpolians, disbanded because “it is, indeed, the time to bid adieu to Rumpole.” I would rather write an introspection, one attempting to fathom the why of Horace Rumpole’s popularity, particularly among American trial lawyers. While Rumpole has become what Mortimer sought for him in 1978 — a symbol of the harmless fun in British justice, yet for the American trial lawyer, he has become far more — the personification of the good and bad in all who ply that professional specialty. There’s a little bit of Rumpole in all of us, and a little of all of us in him. Professional recognition eludes him. Those who acquire it are not his equal — a phenomenon of life we have all experienced. He is not a Q.C., which he denigrates as a “Queer Customer,” yet is a better trial lawyer than most of them. He is not the head of chambers, although the most senior. The current head of chambers, Sam Ballard, Q.C. is somewhat of a simpleton, as was his predecessor, M.P. and Q.C. Guthrie Featherstone, who carried a “deep-seated reluctance to make up his mind” to his current duties as a justice. Judges think little of Rumpole (and he of them, of which more later). He lives with the fact that his specialty, criminal defense, is not well thought of:

There are certain cases undertaken by a criminal defender in which, on entering Court, you feel you’ve stepped into a giant refrigerator into which you’re shut, freezing, for the rest of the trial. The cold winds of disapproval howl at you from all sides and every time you stand up you feel as if you are clearly identified as a septic sore on the body of the nation, closely related to the alleged sex offender in the dock. Such was my feeling when I entered the Crown Court.

He, as we, suffers losses none too happily, but puts them aside with the arrival of a new case, no matter how minor:

The sour taste of a guilty verdict had passed. I had been tempted, perhaps for a dark moment, to hang up my wig, refuse all further work and await death in some dark corner of Pommeroy’s Wine Bar, spinning out my half-bottle of Ch�teau Fleet Street and failing to finish the crossword. No longer. Spring had brought me an affray at Snaresbrook and I had thought of an ingenious defence. Rumpole was himself again.

He knows so well that a trial lawyer writes on water and has but transitory relevance to a client. Rumpole Rests His Case opens with Rumpole noting the reluctance former clients have to socialize with those who were once so essential in their lives:

In the varied ups and downs, the thrills and spills in the life of an Old Bailey hack, one thing stands as stone. Your ex-customers will never want to see you again. Even if you’ve steered them through the rocks of the prosecution case and brought them out to the calm waters of a not-guilty verdict, they won’t plan further meetings, host reunion dinners or even send you a card on your birthday. If they catch a glimpse of you on the Underground, or across a crowded wine bar, they will bury their faces in their newspapers or look studiously in the opposite direction.

He suffers the oddities of Mr. Injustice Graves; Judge Cameron Foulks, “a ginger-moustached wary-eyed Scot” “perky as a cock who has just exercised his droit de seigneur over all the surrounding hens”; Judge Bullingham, an Old Bailey judge, promoted to trying murders, but “[t]o call them trials is perhaps to flatter the learned Judge, who conducts the proceedings as though the Old Bailey were a somewhat prejudiced and summary offshoot of the Spanish Inquisition”; ” ‘Artful Archie’ Archibald to his legion of detractors, owing to his many ingenious ways of persuading Juries to convict”; Judge Millichip “ a soft-voiced, gentle Judge who seemed to be constantly surprised by the rough and often brutal world to which his modest practice in the law of landlord and tenant had brought him.” He always gets the better of the judiciary (something that often eludes us):

“Mr. Rumpole. Are you suggesting that death in this case had something to do with a heart condition?” “I congratulate your Lordship.” I smiled at him in a way he clearly found irritating. “Your Lordship has grasped the exact nature of the defence.” Before his Lordship could find the breath to reply, I asked the expert witness the next question. “Was it possible to tell, from your examination of her bones, if this woman had any such heart condition?” . . . Asking my old friend and sparring partner, Professor Ackerman of the Morgues, the above question was the only way I had of getting the facts of this complaint in front of the Jury.

Since most trial lawyers suffer judicial idiosyncrasies in silence, Mortimer has made Rumpole our “surrogate,” as he recently explained to The Glasgow Herald: “What barristers regret is not being able to say what they think. They are either saying what their client wants them to say or what they want the jury to hear. They are never standing up and saying: ‘This is what I believe.’ “ If this is to be the last in the Rumpole series, then after a particularly trying day of judicial idiosyncrasies, if not idiocy and lunacy, Rumpolians can seek solace by recalling his response when Bonny Bernard, his favorite solicitor, tells him in the hospital that he heard Rumpole had left the bar: ” ‘I never left it. Left life perhaps, but the Bar? Never!’ “ Otto G. Obermaier, a Manhattan lawyer, served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in the Bush “41″ administration.

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