Is Rumpole as popular as Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster? That’s what some British newspapers are claiming today following the death of his 85-year-old creator, Sir John Mortimer. There’s a wee bit of exaggeration, I think, a Bertie Wooster fan with immense respect for Sherlock Holmes.
I just went through some of the short stories in Rumpole Rests His Case, which is perhaps not the best Rumpole book. It did not make me laugh as much as when I first encountered the smoking, drinking barrister and his wife, Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed, years ago.
Rumpole Rests His Case is a little short on jokes. Here’s one example from the short story, Rumpole and the Remembrance of Things Past. The lawyer is making fun here of his colleague, Soapy Sam Ballard, who is trying is persuade him to quit smoking:
“Will nothing make you, Rumpole, take some responsibility for the universe?”
“I seem to remember floods in Noah’s day, when very few people were smoking whiffs. Have you forgotten your Bible, old darling?”
“Rumpole, please don’t quote the Scriptures to excuse your filthy habit.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. I’ll only remind you that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not light up’ appears nowhere, from Genesis to Revelations.”
It sounds dated.
But there is another side to Rumpole, the cheerful cynic who is set in his habits and would rather be at court than home with his wife.
He is also a bit like Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus in his disrespect for authority and dogged pursuit of justice. He is a maverick who has his flaws like Rebus, and that’s what makes him endearing.
But Rumpole’s creator, Mortimer, was not just a writer.
He was also a lawyer who successfully defended Penguin when it published Lady Chatterley's Lover against obscenity charges in the 1960s. He also defended the publishers of the Oz magazine against similar charges in 1971 — and the Sex Pistols when the band was accused of obscenity for the album title Never Mind the Bollocks in 1977.
Here is Melvyn Bragg writing about Mortimer in the Guardian, John Walsh in the Independent, an affectionate tribute in the Telegraph, and a look at his legal career — also from the Telegraph — which says “he became a lawyer at his father's behest and a writer by his own preference”. The Times has a publisher’s account of working with him.