Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rumpole Misbehaves by John Mortimer

John Mortimer is quite old -- he'll be 85 in April -- and still writing. That's worth something. Rumpole Misbehaves is light and comic, with sparkling prose and Rumpole himself as irascible as ever. That's pretty good, too.

But the mystery plot of Misbehaves, and its shape as a novel, leave much to be desired. Misbehaves only makes sense if it is set in a world in which every single person other than Rumpole himself (and possibly She Who Must Be Obeyed, his wife) is utterly incompetent, and most of them are also completely corrupt.

Back when Rumpole's adventures were of novelette-length, the plots were streamlined and the time sequence condensed; there wasn't time or space to wonder why the police in Rumpole's world were either incompetent or corrupt (since they invariably arrested innocent people and then tried to frame them). And the judges and prosecutors were generally seen as unpleasant individuals, people with perhaps differing views on the likelihood of innocence than Rumpole himself, but not as fools or bastards. But, now, in the era of Rumpole novels, even the fellow barristers in Rumpole's chambers are nasty, and he alone upholds the standards and ideals of British Jurisprudence.

Luckily, Mortimer still has a deft hand for dialogue and his playwright's instinct for keeping the action moving, so the flaws are not fatal. Rumpole's world is ever more caricatured, and thus his morals are less likely to be projected by the reader back into the real world, but his stories are nearly as pleasant as ever.

In the course of Rumpole Misbehaves, Rumpole attempts to defend both a young Timson (scion of the large and larcenous South London family that has kept him in work for his entire career) from an ASBO -- a particularly Orwellian invention of the panopticon that is modern Britain -- and a young man from a charge of murder.

The ABSO plot does tie in to the murder eventually, but it's mainly there for Mortimer to rail against the very idea of an "anti-social behavior order." I suspect he's stacking the deck horribly in his favor, but I'm inclined to dislike the idea to begin with, so I went along with him.

But even the most cursory of readers of mystery fiction will note that there is absolutely no evidence presented against the supposed murderer: he went to visit a Russian prostitute in London on his lunch hour, found her dead in her room, and was locked in by her maid/procuress until the police arrived. The prostitute was strangled -- was there any matching of her wounds to his hands? (No.) Was there any fingerprint evidence? (No.) Was the time of death determined? (Mortimer tries to bury this, but, no, it wasn't, in yet another example of the amazing incompetence of authority.) And so on; in any world not containing Rumpole, this guy wouldn't even come to trial; there simply isn't enough evidence.

Luckily, Rumpole's voice is still pleasant, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is not nearly as terrible as she used to be. Rumpole Misbehaves is a fine waste of a few hours, but it's not meant to be read with any critical facility engaged. If I'm capable of as much when I'm eighty-four, I'll be more than happy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, a much diluted Rumpole this, but Mortimer is still most enjoyable. He slyly gets a dig in at my college, Keble, when Rumpole rises in court to defend himself in Rumpole Misbehaves. He speaks, he says,"...on behalf of that dangerous and determined criminal Horace Rumpole, BA (the letters added after a rather poor study of the law at Keble College)." Mortimer was a Brasenose man. I'm reminded that Waugh in Brideshead Revisited also had Sebastian Flyte belittling Keble.

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