LOL! That was me on the train from Stoke-on-Trent to London Euston on Monday, reading Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by the late John Mortimer. I don’t know how annoyed or amused my fellow travellers were by my unsuppressed hilarity as I was too busy reading.
Devotees of Rumpole will know that throughout his career at the criminal bar he refers to his early success in the Penge Bungalow Murders case, which he won “alone and without a leader”. It’s a running joke. The details of this are not (as far as I’m aware), spelled out in the earlier books. Then, towards the end of his thirty-year long Rumpole-writing career, in 2004 John Mortimer decided actually to tell us this story.
What makes the novel so delicious is that we also discover the very first occasion that Rumpole gets involved with the Timson family, the irredeemably thieving family from South London, and their eternal feud with the Molloys. They are to feature throughout Rumpole’s career at the criminal bar. We also learn what we must always have wondered (well I have, anyway) – how on earth Rumpole got married to Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed. The details of their courtship (hardly the right word) are here laid out for our delectation. Poor Horace Rumpole …
We are in the 1950s. Rumpole is at the very beginning of his career as a criminal barrister (a ‘white wig’). He finds himself in the chambers in Equity Court in the Temple that we are going to get to know so well in his future stories. Two ex-RAF war heroes are found shot dead in the bungalows they inhabit in the same road in Penge, archetypal south London suburbia. All the evidence points to their having been shot by the son of one of them. Rumpole’s Head of Chambers (father of the future She Who Must Be Obeyed) gets the case, but his concern for what he sees as ‘the finest traditions of the bar’ seem likely to doom his client to the rope. How Rumpole’s role in the case increases, and its outcome, are the guts of the story.
For me the best bits of the novel are the court scenes, written with all the experience and skill you would expect from John Mortimer QC. The ways Rumpole cheeks the judges always amuse me. But also the scenes in chambers, with characters we have got to know over the years, also appeal. And it’s not just funny: the hangman looms over the story throughout, and Mortimer’s dissection of the absurdities of the legal system has its serious side. The principle that someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty is also a key focus.
I do see the actor Leo McKern when I read Rumpole. And the Penguin edition I’ve been reading displays McKern on the front cover. As many of the Rumpole stories were written after the TV series had been such a success perhaps Mortimer too came to see McKern when he wrote Rumpole. I see from Wikipedia that he initally wanted Alastair Sim for the role (“but he was dead”).
Because I’ve been watching and reading Rumpole for so long I can’t really imagine how this novel would work for someone completely new to it. The cosy feel of the familiar characters, the running jokes, all add to my enjoyment – I do think that it is so fluently written, and with Mortimer’s skill and knowledge, that a newcomer would still enjoy it. If that’s you, do give it a try, and post your reaction!
My family gave me this book for Christmas. They got it in the local Oxfam shop. A very little money well spent.