Now in Paperback: Forever Rumpole
by John Mortimer
Penguin Books, 2012
The first seven “Rumpole of the Bailey” stories reprinted in Penguin’s Forever Rumpole (now in an appropriately stout and overflowing paperback) were originally chosen by John Mortimer in 1993 as the tales he had enjoyed writing the most. They include such gems as “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” in which readers make the acquaintance of the sprawling Timson clan whose petty larcenies have kept our dishevelled barrister hero in legal fees throughout his career, and the hilarious “Rumpole and the Tap End,” in which a bumbling judge’s thoughtless comments get him into hot water with the women of London, and the classic “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation,” in which our hero gets a chance to cross-examine Miss Amelia Nettleship, the best-selling author (bottling “historical bilge-water”) whose florid romances are the favorite reading material of Rumpole’s wife Hilda, whom Rumpole dubs, not entirely affectionately, She Who Must Be Obeyed.
Mortimer wrote most of these first seven stories in a world that can’t help but feel antediluvian: no personal computers, no cell phones, no LexisNexis. The second group of stories in this volume are generally drawn from later in Mortimer’s career, long after he himself had stopped practicing at the bar and devoted himself full-time to writing. Anne Mallalieu’s Introduction matter-of-factly paints a slightly wistful image of Mortimer phoning up his old law chambers to ask about “new laws” and points of procedure, touching base with a world he no longer saw first-hand every day.
This distancing shows a bit even in the evergreen world of the stories themselves. Rumpole subtly ages, at one point suffering a mild heart attack (in court, of course) and requiring a stay in the hospital (where he finds a new client, of course). And the modern world makes inroads into even the musty little paradise of No. 3 Equity Court, in the form of marketing experts and ‘branding’ gurus. Rumpole goes on much as he always has, gently taunting pompous judges and never pleading guilty, but even in the titles of some of these latter stories – “Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces,” “Rumpole Rests His Case,” etc. – readers can feel the slight but real creep of time, that mortal enemy of all light comedy.
There are still gems, of course, but it’s tempting to imagine what kind of selections Mortimer himself would have made to finish out this volume, had he not died in 2009. “Rumpole and the Primrose Path” (included here) is good winsome fun, for example, but the much stronger late stories “Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf” and the quick, uproarious “Rumpole and the Actor Laddie” are omitted, as are a few other high points. The wonderful “Rumpole and the Brave New World” is here and fittingly closes out the volume, but many equally wonderful things are passed over.
Very likely any long-time Rumpole fan could produce similar (and non-matching) gripes – it’s the curse of anthologies, especially thankless “Best Of” numbers. This hefty volume will certainly suffice as a generous introduction to Mortimer’s immortal curmudgeon for the newcomer – and for those long-time fans it’ll be a poignant, extremely enjoyable reminder of many happy reading hours. It’s the next best thing to “The Complete Rumpole” – and who knows? We may see that yet.