The Latest Rumpole

Sir John Mortimer is one of my favourite authors -in this latest Rumpole he turns the Nesbitt cricket test on its head

Rumpole and Rthe Reign of Terror

John Mortimer's Latest Rumpole Book

The long-serving barrister Horace Rumpole becomes involved in defending a case under the Terrorism Act: John Mortimer is on typically enjoyable awkward-squad form.

Rumpole, the disreputable chain-smoking, poetry-quoting, claret-swilling, steak-and-kidney-pudding-munching barrister created thirty years ago by John Mortimer, has once again appeared for the defence. Rumpole and the Reign of Terror gives him the wider scope of a novella, though he has to share the book’s pages with unexpected interpolations from his wife Hilda, who has begun to write her own memoirs.

The title, in a typical Mortimer touch, takes the word “terror” which is so glibly compounded at the moment into “war on terror”, “terror alert”, “terror suspect”, and pushes it back into its roots in the French Revolution. “Terrorism”, the title reminds us, was a term originally coined to describe the behaviour of a state towards individuals, not the other way around. It’s a very Rumpole title: ironic, grandiose, faintly erudite and proudly awkward.

In Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the inimitable “old Bailey hack” finds himself defending a Dr. Khan, who married into the Timson family (a family familiar to readers from the criminal cases they have previously provided for Rumpole) and has been arrested under the Terrorism Act. Rumpole finds himself under political pressure from two sides: firstly from a politician soon to become Minister of Justice, who doesn’t want Rumpole “rocking the boat” by demanding an public trial for Dr Khan, and secondly from the Timson clan, who consider that “ordinary decent criminals” like themselves shouldn’t be defended by the same brief who wants to set terrorists free.

Though points of law were never Rumpole’s strong point, he sees it as his duty to bang on about Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, especially when those in authority would rather he didn’t. Of course Dr. Khan is innocent, and the case turns on a family feud not unlike that between the Timsons and the Molloys. The clan realise the error of their ways, and retain Rumpole for their future collisions with the law – as Fred somewhat disturbingly puts it, “If you can get a terrorist off, you can get anyone off.” This last phrase slips well into the final page, and stops the ending being too neat and heartwarming.

The newest element in Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is the appearance of chapters from Hilda Rumpole’s memoirs, written on a computer she has secreted in the box-room. They don’t actually add much to the work, however. There’s an amusing couple of scenes where Hilda is courted by Leonard Bullingham, better known as Mr. Justice “The Mad Bull” Bullingham, but much of these chapters is taken up by rather unsatisfying accounts of how irritating Rumpole is, and how terrorist are dreadful and should be locked up. Mortimer has failed to give Hilda much of a voice of her own: her words seem far too obviously aimed at making the audience distrust her knee-jerk reactions and admire Rumpole all the more.

That said, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and a necessary reminder of the various ways in which we risk losing our liberty.