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.
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