Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more iconic crime-fictional lawyers has been Horace Rumpole, made famous by Leo McKern. Rumpole of the Bailey was a 7-series television show that began in 1975. Later, the show’s creator, John Mortimer, wrote a series of books and short stories based on the episodes. Let’s take a look at Rumpole today, and turn the spotlight on Rumpole of the Bailey, a collection of six Rumpole short stories.
Horace Rumpole is a barrister – a trial lawyer – whose main satisfaction comes from being in the courtroom, defending his clients. His wife Hilda (more about her shortly), and several of his friends and colleagues, believe he ought to have loftier ambitions, such as becoming a senior (Queen’s Counsel – QC) attorney, or even a judge. But Rumpole likes what he does.
This collection of stories tells of several of the trials in which he is involved. They include: Rumpole and the Younger Generation; Rumpole and the Alternative Society; Rumpole and the Honourable Member; Rumple and the Married Lady; Rumpole and the Learned Friends; and, Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade.
In most of these cases, Rumpole is called to defend clients who don’t have much money, who may even have prison records, and who are sometimes down and out, as the saying goes. He defends a young man from a family of thieves in Rumpole and the Younger Generation, a hippie with a possible drug conviction in Rumpole and the Alternative Society, a man with a record of break-ins in Rumpole and the Learned Friends, and a member of a very dubious, possibly Mob-related family in Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade. In Rumpole and the Married Lady, he takes the side of the wife in a hotly contested divorce case, and in Rumpole and the Honourable Member, he defends an up-and-coming MP against a rape charge.
All of these cases are a bit different, but through all of them, we see Rumpole’s character. His mantra is ‘Never Plead Guilty,’ and he is tireless in defending his clients. He has very clever strategies, too. I can’t say much about them without spoiling the stories, but he is skilled at questioning, at coming up with solid arguments, and at using the information he gets to his client’s benefit. And he does what is necessary to defend his clients. For instance, in Rumpole and the Honourable Member, Rumpole’s daughter-in-law, who is a feminist, gets very upset at his tactics. She sees what he’s doing as attacking the victim – the woman who said she was raped. For Rumpole’s part, his job is to defend his client. It doesn’t mean he takes a rape charge lightly or has no sympathy for someone who’s been attacked. But his first priority is his client.
That said, Mortimer also acknowledges that sometimes, winning a case isn’t the best outcome for a client. And losing a case, much as it stings, can sometimes be the best result for all. Readers who enjoy moral ambiguity will appreciate the fact that these cases aren’t all cut-and-dried. There are real questions of what the best result for everyone is.
This doesn’t mean the stories are dark. If you’ve ever seen the show, then you’ll already know that there’s a great deal of wit in these stories. Some of it comes from Rumpole’s courtroom repartee. And some of it is situational, and even self-deprecatory at times. For instance, in Rumpole and the Married Lady, Rumpole and his opposing counsel are waiting to hear whether their clients will proceed with a very acrimonious divorce or will try to reconcile. The judge in the matter has ordered the parties to try to resolve their issues:
‘Obedient to Mrs. Justice Appleby’s orders, the Thripps met in my room that afternoon. George Frobisher and I, our differences now sunk in the face of the new menace from the judge, shared my small cigars and our anxieties.
‘They’ve been in there a long time,’ George was looking nervously at my closed door. ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t look good for us.’’
On the one hand, it can be a good thing when prospective divorces are avoided. On the other, these two lawyers want their fees. There are other funny moments and quips, too.
Because Rumpole likes being in the courtroom as much as he does, the courtroom itself is an important element in these stories. Many scenes take place in that setting, and there are several instances of courtroom procedure, legal strategy, and so on. There’s also discussion of which judge will preside, and what that might mean. There are also several scenes at Rumpole’s own chambers, with his law clerks, colleagues, articling clerks, and secretarial staff. And, of course, there are plenty of scenes at Pommeroy’s, where Rumpole and his colleagues unwind with plenty of the plonk.
But Rumple has a home life, too. His wife, Hilda, is a formidable person whom he refers to as She Who Must Be Obeyed, or sometimes, She. Her father was Rumpole’s mentor, so she is well versed in what goes on ‘down the Bailey.’ She’s no fool, either. On the one hand, Rumpole jokes more than once that he gets more peace and quiet in his chambers or the courtroom than he does at home. On the other hand, he is just as aware that he and Hilda need each other. In earlier stories, their son, Nick, takes an interest in what his father does, although he finds other interests as he gets older and makes his own life.
Rumpole of the Bailey brings to the page what Mortimer brought to the small screen: a look behind the scenes of the legal life. It features a barrister who takes his commitment to his clients seriously, but who doesn’t take himself too seriously. It takes place against a backdrop of legal settings, and includes both wit and some more thoughtful questions. But what’s your view? Have you read Rumpole of the Bailey or seen the show? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 3 December/Tuesday, 4 December – The Invisible Ones – Stef Penney
Monday, 10 December/Tuesday, 11 December – Too Late to Die – Bill Crider
Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe