The six entries in this suite of tales are a bit long to be short stories, and in fact Mortimer adapted them from the scripts that he wrote for a very long-running TV series. They are loosely but genially connected, as viewers of the series well know, by stray plot elements, by a repertory cast of updated Dickensian types, and above all by the legal, moral, and narrative presence of Horace Rumpole, a wry, pugnacious London barrister in the autumn of his years. Congenitally incapable of “taking the silk”—that is, becoming a Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel), or member of the prosecutorial bar—Rumpole practices only as counsel for the defense. Among those whose cause he takes up in this first collection of his published reminiscences are the scion of an East End criminal clan who may or may not have robbed a pair of Brixton butchers, an ethereal beauty charged with selling cannabis out of a West Country commune, and an unfortunate simpleton accused of stabbing a rent collector outside a Stepney pub.
The tales are as clever as they need to be, and sometimes a little more so, and while they revolve around crime, they ultimately focus less on criminals than on the Falstaffian spirit of the Keats-quoting, small-cigar-puffing lawyer who defends them, usually with scant help from the obtuse judges, unctuous solicitors, and arrogant Q.C.s who compete for the attention of Lady Justice, that blindfolded damsel who presides over the Old Bailey. Rumpole, through it all, keeps to the fixed points of his gruffly comic existence, which include not only the courtrooms and holding cells of the Bailey, but also Pomeroy’s Wine Bar on nearby Fleet Street, the cramped quarters of his chambers in one of the Inns of Court, and the flat in Gloucester Road that he shares with She Who Must Be Obeyed (also known as Hilda, his wife). Those locales together form a clubby, almost timeless world, and a reader leaves it reluctantly.