Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Penguin, 2005).

Sometimes, I find myself really disliking Law & Order because Sam Waterston's character is so insufferably smug and perfect, and sometimes because the defense attorneys hired, fruitlessly, by the clearly guilty criminals on that show are just a bunch of shysters and thugs, weasels every bit as crooked as the men on trial. The police never make errors on that show, except for the occasional errors in procedure which could possibly put a monster back on the street to kill again.

So it's honestly a little refreshing to have John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey stand up to defend people who were on the receiving end of police incompetence or corruption. It is coincidental that I'm writing the first draft of these paragraphs two days after Georgia executed Troy Davis, but it would, occasionally, be nice to see that before a man's life is ended, somebody would stand up for him and point out, as in Davis's case, that the majority of the witness statements were obtained by pressure. I don't think anything of cop killers, but I also don't think anything of suppressing the concept of reasonable doubt.

Throughout the Rumpole television and radio series, and into the print adaptations and later short stories for prose, Horace Rumpole would constantly refer to his first, and greatest triumph, defending something ominously called The Penge Bungalow Murders. This is such a wonderful concept, to have the man borne aloft by the nostalgia of something that, thirty-plus years later, the newer, junior members of his chambers only know because the fat, grouchy cigar smoker won't shut up about them. Before the actual details were lost to time, Rumpole elected to finally give the gruesome facts in a short novel. It is a treat, and far better than the disappointing adaptations and subsequent short stories that disappointed me so much.

In Rumpole's world, the Penge Bungalow Murders really were a cause celebre at the time. Two RAF veterans were killed, and the estranged son of one, who foolishly threatened his drunk father with a revolver earlier in the evening, is charged. In a nation only a few years past World War Two, venerating its veterans and hanging every murderer, it looks really bad for the young man. Rumpole, then just a junior barrister in training, is the only man who wants to listen to the boy's claim of innocence. The lead barrister is more concerned with not causing a fuss and aggravating the judge assigned to the case. Scheduling circumstances leave Rumpole in court alone on the second day of the trial, and he goes against his lead's instructions and gives a withering, impulsive cross-examination to a witness. The accused, finally seeing that somebody wants to believe him, dismisses his counsel and asks Rumpole to defend him, alone. If you can put the book down for an evening after that development, something's just wrong with you. I punched the air. Mortimer builds up this moment so well that it's no wonder the character spent the next three decades bragging about it. You would, too.

At the same time, a young woman named Hilda, daughter of his chambers' head, decides to take an interest in this scruffy young firebrand, seeing a promise in him that nobody else does. Hilda's motives are a little delicious, and it's just as satisfying to watch how She Who Must Be Obeyed started out. But what I really like here is how some of the material about the Rumpole household is left for the reader to infer. Hilda had high hopes and aspirations, and Rumpole never really came through for her on that point, did he? His win in this case was so much more important to him than networking and getting fatcats and aristocrats out of trouble.

Rumpole wanted to be the voice of the unjustly accused and the railroaded, and the high life was never his goal. A life of doing the right thing, and protecting the rights of the innocent, was to be his, with the occasional glass of Pommeroy's Plonk. I really don't believe that his creator and writer ever did him quite the justice in print that he did on television, but man alive, in this novel, he came through for Rumpole. Highly recommended.

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