Category Archives: John Mortimer

But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four started life as a series of short stories that were drawn together. And, as you’ll know, several of her sleuths (the Beresfords, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot) feature in both short stories and full-length novels. That’s not easy to accomplish. Short stories require a different form of writing to novels. That may be part of the reason for which some authors are better known for (perhaps even better at) short stories or novels.

Many authors who do both short stories and novels use their novels for ‘regular’ sleuths, and short stories for different sleuths, different styles of writing, and so on. Other authors, though, feature their main protagonists in both formats. There are advantages to doing this. Readers who are new to an author can ‘meet’ the author’s sleuth in short stories, and then move on to novels. For the author, a short story or a collection can be an effective way to keep a featured sleuth active while a new novel is in the works.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. That’s the format for which he is perhaps most famous. But he also wrote four Holmes novels, including Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. Many people (certainly not all) think the short stories are better. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has an interesting discussion about A Study in Scarlet and the novels vs the short stories. You’ll want to check that out for a more in-depth look at that novel. And you’ll want to have a look at Aidan’s blog. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole actually started life as a television character. As you’ll know, he is a barrister who is completely dedicated to defending his clients. He doesn’t always like them, and he doesn’t always really think they’re innocent. But he always does his utmost for them. The move from television to short stories and novellas makes sense, when you consider the television episode format. The content of a short story or novella is often appropriate for the length of a television episode. It’s harder to fit the content of a full-length novel into a one-hour or ninety-minute television episode. Still, there are a few Rumpole novels. Rumpole’s Return, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole and the Reign of Terror are three of them.

Ellery Queen appears in a number of novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery. And, most people think of those novels when they think of Queen. But he also appears in a number of short stories and collections. For example, there’s the Ellery Queen Omnibus, which contains nineteen short stories. The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes eleven short stories, and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes nine short stories and the novella The Lamp of God. Like Christie’s short stories, some of these are reprinted in more than one collection. But the net result is a variety of different ways for readers to experience Queen.

Lawrence Block has been quite prolific. Perhaps his most famous sleuth, though, is Matthew Scudder, the former police detective who’s become his own sort of private investigator. Scudder’s appeared in a number of novels (e.g. The Sins of the Father, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes). Many readers know him mostly through those novels. But Scudder has also appeared in several short story collections (e.g. The Night and the Music).

So has Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s a Southern California PI who first appears in 1949’s The Moving Target. There are sixteen other novels in which he features. But he also appears in short story form, too. There are three Lew Archer collections: The Name is Archer; Lew Archer, Private Investigator; and, Strangers in Town. There aren’t as many Archer short stories as there are novels. But those stories allow readers a chance to get to know him. In fact, it was through a short story, The Singing Pigeon, that I first ‘met’ Lew Archer.

Elly Griffiths has also been versatile in her writing. Her Ruth Galloway series features Galloway, who is a forensic archaeologist. Thus far, there are ten novels in that series, and many people have become acquainted with Griffiths’ writing through them. But she’s also done a short story, Ruth’s First Christmas Tree. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes by, whether Galloway appears in other short stories at some point.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus. Rebus has featured in a number of full-length novels, beginning with Knots and Crosses. And those novels have allowed Rankin to explore quite a lot about Scotland, about history, and about Rebus. Fans of the series have followed the various story arcs and gotten to know the characters through those novels. But Rankin has also written several short stories featuring Rebus. They’re all collected, if you’re interested in The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories.

There are, of course, many other examples of authors whose main characters appear in both novels and short stories; I know you can think of many more than I could. How do you feel about this? Do you have a preference for novels or short stories about the fictional characters you like best? If you’re a writer, do you write both novels and short stories about your main character(s)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Current Swell’s Short Stories.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elly Griffiths, Ian Rankin, John Mortimer, Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald

Oh, OK, I’ll Leave*

Most of us respect and admire someone who doesn’t back down from challenges. I know I do. At the same time, it’s important to use resources carefully and choose our battles wisely. And sometimes, doing so means a carefully chosen, wise retreat.

Backing off when it’s the wisest thing to do has several advantages. It allows one to conserve (or gather) resources for a more important challenge. Sometimes it even prevents more challenges. And, it can put someone in a position to reach a larger, more important goal. That’s true in real life (as when, say, the police let a minor drug dealer off with a light ‘slap on the wrist’ in hopes of getting the ‘bigger fish.’). It’s also true in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, Baron Edgware, to agree to a divorce (she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him). Poirot and Hastings pay a visit to Edgware and are treated icily. In fact, the only thing he will tell them is that he already withdrew his objection to the divorce. When Poirot tries to ask their host a few questions, he and Hastings are unceremoniously dismissed. Poirot knows that he isn’t going to get any more information during that visit. So, instead of continuing to ask questions, he and Hastings leave quickly. Hastings sees it as a defeat; and, in a way, it is. But it also allows Poirot slightly easier access to the house to investigate when Edgware is stabbed that night. At first, the victim’s wife is the most likely suspect. But she says that she was in another part of London at a dinner party, and there are twelve other people who are willing to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for a suspect.

In Megan Abbott’s historical (1950s) Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena, California schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill are especially close, so he wants her to be happy for him when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele. Lora want that, too, but something about Alice makes her uneasy. Still, she tries to be nice to Alice. And, when Bill and Alice marry, it seems even more important that Lora get along with her new sister-in-law. Little by little, though, she learns things about Alice that unsettle her even more. Still, she doesn’t want to rupture her relationship with Bill; it’s not a hill she wants to die on, as the saying goes. Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions about the death, and finds herself drawn into Alice’s life, even as she is repulsed by it.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late-1970s Buenos Aires, at a time when the military government is firmly in control. No dissension of any kind is permitted, and everyone knows that the penalty for seeming disloyal is ‘disappearing,’ or worse. Against this background, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano works as a police detective. He has to be very careful, but he does try to do his job the best he can. One morning, he’s alerted to the discovery of two dead bodies. When he arrives on the scene, he sees that they bear the hallmarks of an army ‘hit.’ He’s not willing to go up against the army – at least not at that moment. So, he simply ‘rubber stamps’ those deaths as he is supposed to do. There is, though, a third body. And this one seems a little different. Suspecting that this victim might have been murdered by someone in a separate case, Lescano begins to very carefully and very quietly ask some questions. Little by little, and one step at a time, he gets to the truth. And the outcome of this case is that more than one character has to escape the country and be willing to lose that proverbial battle in order to stay alive and, perhaps, do some good for the country elsewhere.

Alan Carter’s Nick Chester has made a similar choice. In Marlborough Man, where we meet him, he and his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Paulie, have been relocated from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. Chester is a police detective who was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. Rather than staying in the UK and testifying (and, possibly, losing his family and his own life in the process), Chester decided it was better to leave, at least for a time. Now, he works with the local police. In this novel, he investigates a series of murders. He also has an ongoing conflict with his UK nemesis, Sammy Pritchard. In both that conflict, and a rough patch he has in his marriage, Chester learns that there are hills not worth dying on, and that, sometimes, the bigger picture is more important.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole has always known that. He’s a barrister who does his job very well, in part because he knows when to pick fights. He sometimes does so in court when conventional wisdom might suggest otherwise. But he never does so at home. Any fan of this series can tell you that Rumpole knows better than to go against his wife, Hilda, ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed.’ It’s not worth the consequences…

There are certainly times when it’s worth seeing something through to the finish. But sometimes, it’s wiser to retreat strategically, regroup, and focus on larger challenges more worth the effort. And it’s interesting to see how that plays out in crime fiction.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Tomorrow is a Latter Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, Ernesto Mallo, John Mortimer, Megan Abbott

In The Spotlight: John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey

Hello, All,

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

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Filed under John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Bailey

They Told Me to Diet*

DietingThis time of year brings with it all sorts of holiday gatherings and parties. That means, of course, all sorts of scrumptious food that you don’t find at other times of the year. And that’s probably a good thing, when you consider how easy it is to indulge more than you should.

It’s all enough to make you absolutely determined that this coming year will be the year you get back into shape. If you do make that promise to yourself, you’re not alone. A lot of people start setting their goals for the new year at this time. A lot of crime-fictional characters do the same thing (or, more often, are pushed into the same thing), and it’s interesting to see just how human they are as they go about it.

For example, in one sub-plot of John Mortimer’s short story Rumpole and the Boat People, criminal lawyer Horace Rumpole visits Dr. MacClintock at the behest of his wife Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed. The doctor suggests that Rumpole might do well to lose some weight:
 

‘‘Just two or three stone, Rumpole, that’s all you have to lose.’ Hilda was warming to her latest theme, that there was too much Rumpole.’
 

The diet isn’t all that appealing, at least to Rumpole:
 

‘‘No fat, of course.’… ‘Because it makes you fat. No meat, too rich in protein. No bread or potatoes, too many calories. No pastries, puddings, sweetmeats or sugar. No biscuits. No salt on the food. Steer clear of cheese. I don’t recommend fruit to my patients because of its acid qualities. Eggs are perfectly all right if hard-boiled.’’
 

Needless to say, Rumpole is not particularly pleased about this diet. Hilda suggests that they take a seaside holiday to make things a bit easier, and since she must be obeyed, Rumpole accedes. It doesn’t turn out to be a peaceful trip, though, as Rumpole gets involved in the case of a man who has drowned – or has he??

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel will know that he enjoys his food and his whisky (or pint). In one plot thread of Ruling Passion, he isn’t feeling well and finally visits a doctor. As you can imagine, the doctor immediately puts Dalziel on a diet and on the proverbial wagon. So he’s not at all in the best of tempers as he and Peter Pascoe investigate a string of home invasions. Of course, this is only the third in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and fans will know that Dalziel doesn’t exactly stay on the culinary straight and narrow path…

Tarquin Hall’s Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri enjoys his food. In fact, his wife Rumpi’s nickname for him is ‘Chubby.’ She’s always concerned about his weight, and he doesn’t care much for her pestering him. So in The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, he decides to do something about it. He gets ZeroCal, a diet formula that, according to its maker,
 

‘…absorbs fat molecules and converts them into a form the human system doesn’t absorb.’
 

Convinced that he’ll be able to lose weight without changing his regimen, Puri makes a mechanical ‘adjustment’ to his wife’s bathroom scale so she won’t annoy him as he’s starting with his new pills. As you can imagine, things don’t turn out the way he plans…

Puri isn’t the only one who gets family pressure about his diet. So does Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík Police Inspector Erlendur. He doesn’t have a young family, or even a spouse to come home to, so he frequently eats food that’s not very good for him. In one plot thread of Jar City, his adult daughter Eva Lind comes to visit. Although she’s hardly a model of good health and a nutritious diet, she makes a very tasty homemade stew one night that reminds Erlendur of what good food is like. Later in the novel, he admits to Eva Lind that he’s been having some chest pains, but doesn’t want to see a doctor. Here’s her response:
 

‘‘Hang on, you’ve got chest pains, you smoke like a chimney, you live on deep-fried junk food and refuse to get yourself looked at.’’
 

It’s not spoiling the story to say that, although Erlendur doesn’t really adopt a fully healthy lifestyle, he does visit the doctor. In this case, it’s interesting to see how Erlendur and his daughter have very similar attitudes towards their own and each other’s health.

And then there’s Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s DI Hazel Micallef of the Port Dundas, Ontario, Police. She lives with her mother, Emily, who still gets concerned about her daughter’s well-being, despite the fact that Hazel is in her early sixties. And she shows that concern in the way she manages (or tries to!) Hazel’s diet. Here’s an example from The Calling:
 

‘Hazel smelled bacon. ‘Eat,’ said her mother.
‘I’ll wait for the bacon.’
‘No meat for you, my girl, this is for me.’
Hazel stared down at the anemic omelet on the plate. ‘This isn’t food for a grown woman, Mother,’ she said.
‘Protein. And fiber. That’s your breakfast. Eat it.’ She stared at her daughter until she picked up a fork.’
 

Hazel finds ways to eat what she wants, at least sometimes, but it’s interesting to see how her mother manages what she eats at home.

Keeping to a healthy diet at this time of year isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not always fun. But it’s better than having to start from the very beginning when the new year starts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a piece of chocolate. What?! It’s just the one piece. Ooh, but wait, there’s the kind with macadamias in it…  😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allan Sherman and Lou Busch’s Little Butterball.

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Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Inger Ash Wolfe, John Mortimer, Michael Redhill, Reginald Hill, Tarquin Hall