by Bruce TierneyDecember, 2004
Mystery of the month
As I was preparing this column, I realized that I could not remember a time when John Mortimer's classically British barrister Rumpole (of the Bailey) was not around. Surely he predates Perry Mason, possibly even Clarence Darrow, right? Not so, mon frÂre! The first Rumpole book was published in 1978, which means that Rumpole does not even predate, say, Fleetwood Mac. Go figure. In the intervening years, Mortimer has treated us to more than 100 Rumpole stories in some 20 volumes. The latest, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, finds modern-day Rumpole sitting back and recounting the details of his very first case. By a combination of happy accident and the behind-the-scenes machinations of his future wife, Hilda (the aptly monikered "She Who Must Be Obeyed"), Rumpole takes over the defense of a young man accused of killing his war-hero father with a gun taken from a dead German pilot. Rumpole in his early years is perhaps a bit more diffident and less cranky than in his old age, but the seeds of his later-life attitudes are clearly present. She Who Must Be Obeyed is in fine form as well, guiding (some might say "manipulating") our hero in his every move. The Rumpole books are equally appealing to fans of British mysteries and aficionados of the bad-boy English authors of the '50s. They are clever, exceptionally relevant and crammed full of the sort of weird and wonderful quotes that stick with you long after you put the book down. Congrats to John Mortimer, winner of this month's Tip of the Ice Pick award.