The “terror” that bedevils Horace Rumpole in this late installment of his memoirs comes in two forms, one legal and one domestic, and it’s likely that the domestic peril leaves a more lasting scar on the old barrister’s soul than does the other, more far-reaching threat to peace and order. Mortimer’s great achievement here is to blend the private with the public, the comic with the serious, and thereby to apply a light touch to a dark subject: the specter of terrorism that loomed over the streets and law courts of London during the first decade of the 21st century.
Mahmood Khan, a successful doctor who is Pakistani by background but thoroughly British in sensibility—of roast beef and cricket, he cannot get enough—finds himself under arrest for allegedly conspiring with Al Qaeda operatives. Yet the government refuses to divulge whence that allegation comes, or what its basis in evidence might be. Enter Rumpole, carrying a small cigar and a big chip on the shoulder of his fraying robe and, not least, an outsized commitment to the immemorial rights of a criminal defendant under British law. At the same time, Rumpole must contend with the terrifying fact that his wife, Hilda, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, has started to pen memoirs of her own. Equally frightening, she has several choice topics to address in her manuscript, including a new “friendship” with an Old Bailey judge who has long been one of her husband’s leading nemeses.
The main story line, which follows Rumpole’s effort to secure a fair trial for Khan and then to win that trial, is no more clever than it needs to be. Rumpole knows his way around a courtroom, once he’s allowed inside it, and he bobs and weaves during this trial much as he would during a standard criminal proceeding, with a mix of legal wit and arch theatricality. Maneuvering his way around Hilda, however, proves to be not quite so easy.