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Rumpole and the Angel of Death

John Mortimer

Viking Books

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-670-86541-X

261 pages; $22.95

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2001




04-25-02, 04-29-02, 01-07-03

It's tempting to think that everyone in the world has heard of Rumpole by now, that he has passed beyond reviewability. But that's not the case here in America, the home Matlock and McDonald's. The British barrister is surely known to the watchers of the PBS series, but never likely to achieve the position held by Perry Mason, unlikely to eclipse the slick creations of this year's John Grisham or Michael Crichton. But these are TV lawyers, and while Rumpole make a non-pariel TV series, he is first, if not foremost, a piece of writing, a character who is born and breathes on the printed page. The last we in the US heard, both actor and writer had given up on the character. With "Rumpole and the Angel of Death", we can be glad that the writer, at least, has revoked on his promise.

"Rumpole and the Angel of Death" offers up the usual six stories, writen in the kind of witty prose that sparks his other appearances. What is striking about the Rumpole stories is that, here as everywhere else, they are superbly well-written piece of comic wit, precisely crafted machines that just work again and again. But Mortimer isn't just resting on his laurels. While some stories simply cover business as usual, with Rumpole's triumphant victories or embarrassing losses, other diverge from the formulae that have worked so well over the years.

The standout work here is "Hilda's Story", told not by Horace, but instead by She Who Must Be Obeyed, Horace's wife, Hilda. Though the voice is distinctly different, the barbed wit remains intact, and Hilda's observations show us a side of Rumpole that we usually don't get to see. Moreover, Hilda's own preoccupations are themselves quite enjoyable. This is, in some twenty years of writing the first story told Hilda, but there's every reason to hope that it won't be the last. "Rumpole and the Angel of Death", the final story, offers up not a Rumpole ready to die or retire, but a Rumpole ready to live, ready to return, and hopefully, a good bit sooner this time. It's never to late to start reading Rumpole. There's enough to go around for everyone, and John Mortimer has kept the quality control of the writing high enough to satisfy even She Who Must Be Obeyed.