BOOK REVIEW / Barrister-errant to the rescue: Rumpole on trial - John Mortimer: Viking, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
ON THE FACE of it, there seems as little point in reviewing the new Rumpole as in writing a critical assessment of ball-by-ball cricket commentaries or royal marriage gossip. In its own way, each represents a much-loved aspect of our national heritage, only marginally related to reality as most of us know it, but affording pleasure to countless thousands - who will be relieved to learn that Rumpole on Trial is as faithful to its 13-year-old predecessor, The Trials of Rumpole, as the similarity of their titles suggests. She Who Must Be Obeyed still rules Froxbury Mansions with a tongue of iron, Chateau Thames Embankment still flows like sewer water in Pommeroy's Wine Bar, cheery Cockney villians still obey their quaint code of honour, and the attempts of 'Ollie' Oliphant and his fellow judges to perpetrate gross miscarriages of justice are still foiled by the shrewd native wit of the average British jury enlightened by the Perry Masonic antics of Horace Rumpole.

At their best, the Rumpole stories are an object lesson in how to live well within modest literary means. The main narrative hook, a miniature detective story, is set against one or two sub-plots featuring thematically parallel developments in Rumpole's personal and/or professional life. Meticulous craftsmanship, affectionate caricature and a deft seasoning of legal expertise combine to create a satisfying comedy of manners with just enough edge to prevent it cloying.

The new collection only fitfully achieves this level, and there is some evidence - including such uncharacteristic slips as the suggestion that Muscat and Beaumes de Venise are different wines - that Mortimer has finally become bored with the very restrictions which so endear his creation to the public. It is significant that by far the best passage is a dinner party given by the benchers of the Outer Temple, which does not feature Rumpole at all.

Rumpole's Wodehousian ancestry has often been remarked, but a more interesting precursor is Father Brown. Like Chesterton, John Mortimer is an establishment dissenter and the stories have an implicit ideological agenda. Rumpole's task as barrister-errant is to enable 'the people of England, that never have spoken yet' to see through the ploys and impostures which are being foisted upon them and to find their collective voice as jurors, it being taken for granted that they cannot then fail to speak the truth. The limitations of these consoling fictions are underlined by stories tackling - and trivialising - such topics as child abuse and police corruption in terms (Stalinist social workers/one rotten apple) worthy of a tabloid leader.