Rumpole’s Nose

For second hand book lovers, the League of Women Voters Book Sale in Amherst is a real mother lode. I picked up some Lindsey Davis mysteries (set in ancient Rome), a couple of Elmore Leonard books, a few Robert B. Parker books, and the First and Second Rumpole Omnibi (Omnibuses? Omnibusses?) with more than 40 stories by John Mortimer about Horace Rumpole, an aging English barrister with a penchant for poetry and a wry sense of irony.

John Mortimer with Leo Kern, who played Rumpole in the television series
John Mortimer with Leo Kern, who played Rumpole in the television series

John Mortimer has written many books, film scripts, plays, and television adaptations and everything he writes is incredibly funny.

The Rumpole stories are tremendously popular, particularly with members of the legal profession, partly because Mortimer was a barrister in his younger days and knows the judicial system inside out.

What I find unusual with these stories is how he makes the same jokes over and over and still manages to make them funny.

Rumpole always recalls a snatch of poetry from The Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch edition) that sums up the case. He’s usually representing a member of the Timpson clan, a family of South London villains specializing in petty crime.

There’s a strong cast of comedic characters like the foppish Claude Erskine-Brown, who is always trying to take personable young women to the opera, because his brilliant wife Phillida Trant (as was) ‘the Portia of our chambers’ is always off in the Midlands doing a fraud case or an embezzlement.

Rumpole always smokes little cigars and goes after work to Pommeroy’s Wine Bar to enjoy Pommeroy’s very ordinary, which he refers to as ‘Chateau Thames Embankment.’

His wife Hilda is always referred to (except in her presence) as ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed,’ an allusion to a novel by H. Rider Haggard about an Egyptian sorceress/goddess who achieves immortality and rules over a primitive people.

And in almost every story, we find a reference to the Penge Bungalow murders, a case which Rumpole won as a junior barrister ‘alone and without a leader.’ (Junior barristers are usually ‘led’ by a more senior member of the profession.)

All these elements are repeated again and again until they become a kind of familiar litany, and the reading public and the television audience never seems to get tired of them.

That’s because Mortimer is a truly brilliant comedic writer — on the order of Mark Twain.

Take this scene where Erskine-Brown is criticizing Rumpole’s choice of wine, and Rumpole mistakes his meaning:

“‘You see, Rumpole,’ he said, ‘it’s the terrible nose.’

“Now I make no particular claim for my nose and I am far from suggesting it’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever. When I was in my perambulator it may, for all I can remember, have had a sort of tip-tilted and impertinent charm.

“In my youth it was no doubt pinkish and healthy-looking. In my early days at the Bar it had a sharp and inquisitive quality which made prosecution witnesses feel they could keep no secrets from it.

“Today it is perhaps past its prime, it has spead somewhat; it has, in part at least, gone mauve; it is, after all, a nose that has seen a considerable quantity of life.

“But man and boy it has served me well, and I had no intention of having my appearance insulted by Claude Erskine-Brown, barrister-at-law, who looks, in certain unfavorable lights, not unlike an abbess with a bad period.”