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Forever Rumpole: relive the series

Only one tale sours John Mortimer's otherwise excellent collection of short stories featuring the trials and tribulations of Horace Rumpole, of the Old Bailey.

PG Wodehouse once complained that comedy was bloody hard work, but he kept on churning out glittering, bubbly prose almost until the day he died. The beauty of the Wodehouse canon, as has been often remarked, is that no word of it ever feels like work, and that same balancing act was well known to his most obvious literary heir, the late John Mortimer. Although he enjoyed a certain notoriety as a barrister at London's Old Bailey, Mortimer achieved his measure of immortality outside its chambers - for it was Mortimer who gave us Rumpole.

Horace Rumpole, that is, the Old Bailey barrister: plump, perennially dishevelled Rumpole, mainstay of No 3 Equity Court, who subsists on "the rich pickings of legal aid", enjoys a glass of "Château Thames Embankment" at Pommeroy's bar after a hard day in court and who never pleads guilty. Mortimer created Rumpole for a television play in 1975, reprised the character for a TV series in 1978 and the ensuing flow of stories starring Rumpole and his supporting cast won a comfortable popularity with murder-mystery fans - a popularity hugely abetted by veteran actor Leo McKern in the lead. Not since the days of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes had an actor so thoroughly inhabited such a role, and through that popularity the Rumpole enterprise flourished.

There were 11 collections of short stories, three omnibus editions, four collections and, at the time of Mortimer's death in 2009, four full-length novels - Rumpole and the Angel of Death, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, and The Anti-social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole. After the author's death, sporadic attempts were made to sustain things. A "Christmas" volume was cobbled together and there have been, and will be, further dramatic interpretations, as heretical as they seem without McKern, who died in 2002. This impulse is as understandable financially as it is emotionally; it's not just the Mortimer estate lawyers who'd like to see this Old Bailey duffer go on forever.

As with Wodehouse, so too with Rumpole: the essence of the comedy comes from the comfortable confines of its created world. We trade Wodehouse's lunatic-crowded English country houses and the Prohibition-era nightclubs of New York for Mortimer's Old Bailey locales, from the cells of Wormwood Scrubs, where Rumpole can often be found conferring with the Timson clan, that family of hapless, small-time South London villains whose crimes have kept Rumpole in legal fees for decades, to the trial rooms of the Uxbridge Magistrate's Court, where our dogged hero does battle with nefarious judges from the clerk's room of No 3 Equity Court, presided over by "Soapy" Sam Ballard, the sanctimonious Head of Chambers, to the humble homestead in the Gloucester Road, presided over by Rumpole's imperious wife Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed".

The glory of these stories and novels - their genius, no less than Wodehouse's, though less widely recognised - is how much they manage to entertain within the strict confines of their construction. In this Mortimer was the most unlikely of artists, and Rumpole stories are the most unlikely of sonnets, a description that would have pleased our hero, a devoted fan of The Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch edition).

Alas, it's a fixed canon. Mortimer, especially in later years, sent these things to press as soon as they were completed. There can be no lost Rumpole stories - only fragments, abandoned afterthoughts, incomplete drafts like the fugitive Aubrey-Maturin pages the publishers of Patrick O'Brian so ignominiously pulled from his dead hands. The urge to see new Rumpole adventures is, as mentioned, perfectly human, perfectly understandable - and it's to be resisted for exactly that reason.

Like all great comic characters, Rumpole is no stranger to resurrection. In Rumpole and the Age of Retirement, he allows his long-suffering chambers partners to believe he's finally retiring - then smilingly keeps on going (and gladly confiscates the commendatory mantlepiece-clock tendered as his going-away gift). In Rumpole and the Last Resort, our wily barrister encourages the legal world to believe he's actually died, in order to produce a long-overdue payment from an oily law firm ("There are no smiling faces today at Paisley, Winterbottom and Blythe," Hilda is assured - a claim that becomes certain when she demands the hefty payment). In the later novel Rumpole Rests His Case, he is temporarily felled by a mild heart attack and faces the prospect of hanging it all up - only to begin championing justice from his hospital bed.

This latest attempt at resurrection, however, is unworthy of the character. Viking Press has issued a volume called Forever Rumpole featuring 14 classic short stories and a fragment of something that, had its author lived, might have become a new story. As it stands, Rumpole and the Brave New World is neither a finished short story nor a helpful draft but rather a mere scrap, something its author would never have allowed, something Rumpole would have considered inadmissible.

The whole point of the Wodehouse magic is that readers never see the work in progress - a story fragment is anathema to the enchantment. Far from sweeping us back into that warmly familiar world, it serves only to remind us that the man who created that world is now dead. The fragment's inclusion here among these perennial charms is a bad misstep on the part of Mortimer's publishers.

Fortunately, if we ignore it, we can rejoice all over again in these 14 stories. Seven of them were chosen by Mortimer himself for the 1993 volume The Best of Rumpole (the other seven come from subsequent years), and the satisfying result has an introduction by Ann Mallalieu, an old friend and colleague of Mortimer's.

Here we get such old gems as Rumpole and the Tap End, in which a hapless judge manages to offend the women of England and must be helped back from the brink by our hero; Rumpole and the Children of the Devil, in which a young daughter of the notorious Timson clan stands accused of consorting with the Devil (Rumpole suspects a culprit much closer to South London); Rumpole à la Carte, with its priceless send-up of all arrogant celebrity chefs in the person of the world-renowned Jean-Pierre O'Higgins, who has "sent film stars away in tears because they dared to mention Thousand Island dressing". And there is one of the finest and funniest of Mortimer's stories, Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation, which finds our literary barrister attacking the wretched prose of the celebrated historical romance novelist Amelia Nettleship, much to the chagrin of the trial's judge, who's a fan of the lady's latest, Lord Stingo's Fancy. "Ah yes." The judge looked as though he were about to enjoy a treat. "Isn't that the one which ends happily?" "Happily, all Miss Nettleship's books end, my Lord … eventually."

The collection's later stories sample the changes Mortimer saw fit to filter into his largely static world. Rumpole's chambers are slowly modernising around him, implementing more and more health and professional standards codes and even importing odious bean-counters such as Vince Blewitt in Rumpole and the Angel of Death, who wants Rumpole to "increase market share on his personal achievement record" or Luci Gribble, a new director of marketing and administration.

By the end of the last published story, Rumpole and the Christmas Break, the reader has been taken on a journey through the rough terrain of the entire Rumpole career, from the days when no law firms had computers to the days when they're all rife with mobile phones.

For long-time Rumpole fans, it can't help but be a bit of a melancholy journey, and perhaps inevitably a frustrating one. Every one of those fans will have a favourite story that isn't included in this volume (a successfully tense political story, Rumpole and the Golden Thread isn't here, for instance, nor is the hilarious Rumpole and the Age of Miracles). And although it's undeniable that Mortimer's most natural métier was the short story, it shouldn't be forgotten that he was also extremely adept at full-length novels (his 1985 novel Paradise Postponed is probably the best thing he ever wrote) - the peculiar, laconic magic of the later Rumpole novels is, of course, missing from this volume of shorter works.

But what's here is a great serving of pure magic. Even to the last page of the last story, the Timsons still need saving, She Who Must Be Obeyed still needs mollifying, the earnest young go-getters of the Bailey still need to be shown what a nimble cross-examination looks like, Judge Bullingham still needs to be put in his place, and the innocent still need defending. And we all still need Rumpole.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: November 4, 2011 04:00 AM