He Who Must Be Obeyed: John Mortimer and the Rumpole Stories

Dec 29, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Lillian Stewart Carl

Sir John Mortimer wrote novels, plays, and several volumes of autobiography, but the Rumpole of the Bailey stories are my favorites. So I was amused when I read in Mortimer’s part memoir, part collection of essays, Where There’s a Will, about an incident that occurred after the death of Leo McKern.

Mortimer writes, “He was an actor who magnificently portrayed a character I’d written, Rumpole, the claret-swigging, small-cigar-smoking, fearless upholder of our great legal principles, trial by your peers, the presumption of innocence and the rule that the police shouldn’t invent more of the evidence than is strictly necessary. At a restaurant we go to near our home in England, the owner saw a newspaper headline, ‘Rumpole Dies’, and for days she spoke in hushed and, I’m relieved to say, regretful tones about my unfortunate death.”

Mortimer points out how there’s the author, there’s the character, and there’s the actor who played the character—and admits it’s all very confusing.

Well yes, it is, and more so in Mortimer’s case than that of many authors. We all draw on our own experiences in creating characters and stories, but Mortimer very much based Rumpole’s legal career on his own.

He says, “I count myself extremely lucky to have been called to the bar in my twenties,” and adds, “The art of listening is one that has to be learned by lawyers.” As a lawyer he was able “…to learn many secrets, to meet a huge variety of people, to bear their misfortunes with great heroism and to see the solutions to their problems quite clearly. Talking to juries and judges in court, I was always telling them things I thought they’d like to hear.”

Telling people things they’d like to hear. Isn’t that the definition of a fiction writer?

Mortimer admits that even Rumpole’s appearance is based on his own, saying, “Defense barristers down at the Old Bailey had to avoid looking too rich or too inexperienced.” He goes on to explain how gowns should be old, worn, and inexpertly mended, waistcoats stained with egg, and wigs (which the legal profession has obstinately kept on since they were the height of fashion) should be yellow with age and hopefully disintegrating. A new white wig is not only shockingly expensive but a sure sign of recent admission to the bar.

He adds that he also wore a large pair of cufflinks that would catch not only the light but also the jury’s eyes, a ploy Rumpole missed but would surely have applauded.

As an American reader, I find details such as gowns and wigs to be rather exotic. So is the system of solicitors and barristers, to say nothing of the way the judge is allowed to interject comments—often very partial ones—during the proceedings and then sum up the case to the jury. Rumpole’s interactions with various judges provide as much comic relief as plot complication.

Despite the gravity of the law, the Rumpole stories aren’t heavy and angst-ridden tales, but are confections long on dry humor and charm, with witty if subtle commentary on the state of Britain, the law, and mankind.

Mortimer writes how one day he was “…congratulating the jury on having sat through what was undoubtedly one of the most tedious cases ever heard at the Old Bailey. The judge countered this by starting his summing-up, ‘It may surprise you to know, members of the jury, that it is not the sole purpose of the criminal law of England to entertain Mr. Mortimer.’”

Wasn’t it? Here is the first paragraph of the first Rumple story”, Rumpole and the Younger Generation published in 1978:

“I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs. Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed) and father to Nicholas Rumpole (lecturer in social studies at the University of Baltimore, I have always been extremely proud of Nick); I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, fingerprints, and forgery by typewriters; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (there’s not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday in the Costa Brava), in order to write my reconstructions of some of my recent triumphs (including a number of recent disasters) in the Courts of Law, hoping thereby to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must be Obeyed, and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a life-long subject of harmless fun.”

This passage—indeed, all of the Rumple stories—should be used in creative writing classes as an example of Narrative Voice. Mortimer makes writing Rumpole seem like a smooth and delightful entertainment, although I doubt if it was all the time. Every author has moments when the plot refuses to gel, the characters sit around sullenly, and the prose lies there like a flaccid and leaky balloon, resisting all your efforts to inflate it.

Speaking of plot, Mortimer says, “In a time when plots are considered to be of minor importance, it’s recognized that crime stories, tales of detection, can’t do without them.” He adds, “All writers in all fields use mystery, suspense, the withholding of information, the puzzlement and final enlightenment of the reader.”

I personally am bemused by the plots of the Rumpole stories, in that our viewpoint, first-person narrator very often stumbles over the vital clue—or has it presented to him in a coincidence—rather than finding it after a diligent quest. But the plots mesh together so beautifully, like well-polished Rube Goldberg devices, that I forgive Mortimer for something I’d frown on in writers of lesser skill.

“So what of the advocate who has to stand up in court and present a quite possibly untrue account of events?” Mortimer writes in Where There’s a Will. “Is he saying something he doesn’t believe to be true? Quite possibly; but the advocate has gone through a process well known to those struggling for religious faith, the suspension of disbelief.” To which I add, it’s also a process well known to mystery readers.

Rumpole calls his wife, Hilda, the matrimonial grindstone of Froxbury Mansions, Gloucester Road, “She Who Must Be Obeyed” (a nickname drawn from H. Rider Haggard’s adventure tale She). Mortimer himself is He Who Must Be Obeyed—the author, the founder of the feast and the instigator of the tale.

But then, as He points out, “No story can exist until the characters come to life.”

Rumpole plays off a lively cast of well-described characters who most certainly are alive, from his fellow lawyers at 3 Equity Court to a wide variety of defendants (you don’t expect Rumpole to ever prosecute, do you?) including the Timsons, a clan of South London villains whose petty crimes keep Hilda in cleaning supplies and Rumpole in his favorite wine, Chateau Thames Embankment.

We occasionally hear the voices of other characters, including Hilda herself, who solves her own case in “Hilda’s Story.” And while most of the stories take place in London, occasionally Mortimer takes us to other parts of England, or to Strasbourg, Germany, Florida, or Africa. In every case, though, Rumpole clings to what he calls the Golden Thread: the principle that the defendant is presumed innocent until found guilty.

Mortimer writes of his own method of making the final speech for the defense: “’Members of the jury,’ I used to say, ‘tomorrow you will go back to your jobs and your homes. You will forget all about the Black Spot Pub, the missing diary pages, the broken salad knife and the uneaten dog food at Number 12A Mafeking Avenue’ (or whatever the particular facts of the case might have been). ‘To you this has been only a short interruption. A minute of your life. But to the man/woman sitting there in the dock, it means the whole of his/her life. And we leave that life, with confidence, in your hands.’”

He goes on to say that he thought this method good enough to give to Rumpole, as, for example, in “Rumpole and the Female of the Species”, where our favorite barrister instructs his young pupil, Fiona Allways, in the art of summing-up. “…and it is that life that I leave with confidence in your hands, certain that there can be only one verdict in this case—‘Not Guilty’! …Sink down exhausted then, Fiona,’ I told her, ‘mopping the brow.’

“Will it work just as well for me?” she asked doubtfully. “I mean, my man’s only accused of nicking six frozen chicken pieces from Safeway’s.’”

While there are countless fine tales to be found in the courtroom, I doubt if many lawyers can express themselves as smoothly and gracefully as Mortimer does.

For example, from Rumpole’s Last Case (don’t be fooled by the title. It isn’t): “The whole enterprise…seemed ambitious for men whom I should never have thought of as bank robbers. It was rather as though the ends of a pantomime horse had decided to get together and play Hamlet.”

And from Rumple and the Younger Generation: “So, as the carefully chosen words of Guthrie Featherstone passed over our heads like expensive hair oil…”

Mortimer’s facility with a phrase reflects his love for classic English literature. His prose, presented in a Queen’s English that is no less supple for being perfectly grammatical, seems almost old-fashioned today. But then, he was born in 1923 and sadly passed on that great courtroom in the sky in 2005.

I highly recommend Where There’s a Will, with its crotchety and yet delightful musings on art, literature, politics, women, children, aging—and his double career in writing and the law.

In his essay “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Sir John Mortimer says, “I can only suggest you do your best to banish anxiety, possibly with a glass of champagne, and lay yourself open to the moment when happiness becomes irresistible.”

Moments that occur frequently when you’re reading a book of Rumpole stories.

Lillian Stewart Carl is the author of multiple novels and multiple short stories in multiple genres. Her most recent novels include the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series, which begins with The Secret Portrait: America’s exile and Scotland’s finest on the trail of all-too-living legends. Learn more on her website.


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