Humanity is flawed. Nobody knows that better than Horace Rumpole, the aging barrister at law down the Old Bailey in London. And yet, if anybody could make a case for humanity, in spite of all its idiosyncrasies and – let’s face it – often downright malice, it is the stout defender of hopeless cases.
John Mortimer’s “Rumpole on Trial” is a collection of seven short stories that give us a delightful, humorous glimpse of how the wheels of justice can sometimes follow a much-trodden road of prejudice and pre-trial adjudication. It takes the likes of Rumpole, with his ash-covered waistcoat and raggedy wig, to steer the wheels in the direction of truth or, at the very least, to uphold the Golden Thread of Justice.
This great criminal defender not only memorizes Wordsworth and inserts a bit of poetry at every possible occasion, he also knows how to win over juries and get them on his side. Inevitable disputes with the “old darlings on the bench” highlight Rumpole’s cunning wit and eloquence. Of course not all judges can be as easily wrapped around the finger as the somewhat accident-prone and indecisive Mr. Justice Guthrie Featherstone, a longtime colleague of Rumpole. Featherstone faces more than one judicial dilemma. Not only does he make an unwise remark before passing judgement during a trial for murder, but he also boasts in the Sheridan Club about an extramarital affair. It is up to Rumpole to discover the truth when he defends the detective sergeant accused of forging the confession. It is also Rumpole’s doings to expose the judge’s adulterous revelation.
Rumpole’s most heated battles in court are with Mr. “Injustice” Graves, who is the least likely to get a case laughed out of court and who thinks that all accused offenders in the dock are very likely to have committed the crime. When Rumpole accuses prominent philanthropist and ex-batter for England Sir Sebastian Pilgrim of using his reformed criminal youth offenders for his own business endeavors, Judge Graves is outraged. Securing an acquittal for Rumpole’s youth offender appears hopeless. In the end, it is Rumpole’s wife, Hilda, who helps put an important piece into this puzzling case.
Another long time judiciary foe is Mr. Justice “Ollie” Oliphant, the North Country comedian who fancies that all people south of Leeds are dreaming layabouts, no doubt eating grapes in the sun and strumming guitars. Justice Oliphant delights in interrupting Rumpole’s cross-examinations to insert a bit of “good old North Country common sense.” Rumpole is not only before Judge Oliphant in “Rumpole and the Eternal Triangle,” but faces this judge again in the last story, “Rumpole on Trial,” under particularly strenuous circumstances. Rumpole loses his temper. Before long, he is hauled in front of the Bar Council, standing as the accused. But the great defender does not want to defend himself on trumped-up charges, and it appears that Rumpole’s lifetime at the bar has reached the end.
With a knack of keeping the reader’s interest, Mortimer presents his character Rumpole with cases that are difficult, at best, to defend. The clients range from the stereotypical youth who is said to have attacked an elderly lady, a couple of murderous husbands, a soothsayer, and an eight-year-old girl accused of devil worship to a policeman accused of having altered a confession. It takes unconventional gathering of the facts, a nose for discovering the truth, and a profound understanding of how humans think and operate to solve these cases. No wonder Rumpole is getting the brief when Lord Sackbut has to face the hostile Coroners Court. It is difficult to fool the old barrister who is an expert on bloodstains, although the aristocratic client may not appreciate Rumpole’s revelations.
Inevitably, Rumpole’s scheming targets some of his fellow barristers of Number 3, Equity Court – a rather amusing selection of eccentric lawyers. What else can you expect if Chambers is headed by “Soapy” Sam Ballard, who confuses his Headship with the Archbishopric of Canterbury? Yet, members of Chambers rely on Rumpole to get them out of a snag. Claude Erskine-Brown, in particular, needs perpetual maintenance as he has the ill-fated talent of attracting trouble instead of females whom he wishes to take to hours of unadulterated Wagner.
At the end of each day, Rumpole visits Pommeroy’s Wine Bar to indulge in a glass or two of Chateau Fleet Street or Thames Embankment before facing his ultimate nemesis at Froxbury Mansions in the Gloucester Road: his wife Hilda, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. In spite of Rumpole’s triumphs in court, his success in keeping the equilibrium in Chambers, his achievements in brilliant deduction – Hilda Rumpole is not a woman to be trifled with, and she sees through her husband’s ploys. Most of the time.