The exploits of Horace Rumpole, typically classified as “crime stories,” are about crime only in the most tenuous sense. But they are stories, stories of the purest kind. As a barrister in the London “defence” bar, Rumpole deals constantly with criminals, actual as well as merely accused: the wife who kills her two-timing, murder-bent husband in self-defense; the old soldier, lost in nostalgia for “the Empire,” who stands charged with inciting a fascist riot; the thieves’ fence who for once is innocent of receiving stolen goods. Yet an overwhelmingly comic mood hovers over both the defendants and their deeds, and it puts the six novella-length tales in this volume at a far remove from the dark-edged fiction usually sold under the “crime” or “mystery” banner. The spirit of comedy starts with Rumpole’s marriage to Hilda, known as She Who Must Be Obeyed; it’s a telling departure from the bachelor-haunted structure of the classic detective story. Rumpole and his comrades down at the Old Bailey, moreover, evoke the shades of Jeeves and Wooster more than they do those of Holmes and Watson. Mortimer, indeed, resembles P.G. Wodehouse in his knack for making a story move on the energy generated by its own well-tuned engine—and on the strength of his own purring prose. In his imagined realm, God may or may not be in His heaven, but Rumpole is in his chambers and all is right with the world.
JOHN MORTIMER. The Trials of Rumpole (1979).