Observer review: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by John Mortimer

The first novel-length adventure for John Mortimer's world-weary barrister, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, finds him fresh from Oxford. Fans of the short stories will be salivating, says Stuart McGurk

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders
by John Mortimer
Viking ?16.99, pp244

'I don't know what you think about being young,' ruminates Rumpole in his first novel-length adventure. 'To me, it's a time for growing used to disappointment.'

A young Rumpole of the Bailey may seen a contradiction in terms - you imagine him emerging from the womb fully wigged and gowned.

We meet Rumpole fresh from Oxford, his defiance burgeoning rather than blustering, withholding his wit rather than scolding with it, and about to appear in a double murder case single-handedly - the Penge Bungalow murders.

Fans of the Rumpole short stories will be salivating. The plot zips along, barely pausing for narrative breath, as the eclectic cast of dishonest barristers and honest criminals passes through, allowing just enough time for missing witnesses, bitter rivalry, three love interests, war-time plots and a tone which constantly walks a fine line between comedy and pathos, tragedy and triumph.

If there is a criticism, Mortimer relies too much on knowledge of previous Rumpole adventures. His characters, like cardboard cutouts, are instantly identifiable but you doubt they would stand up to cross-examination.

The writing is deceptively simple, never getting in the way of a tautly paced narrative but allowing for some precise descriptive detail, from a 'tweaser-lipped' woman to a 'spreading' grandmother.

The trademark Mortimer wit ranges from razor-sharp dialogue (when the book truly peaks) to more erudite wit (a barrister speaking in a voice, which, 'having hit on an effective note of amused contempt, was disinclined to try any change of expression' is one such gem) but, occasionally, falling into the average and vaguely irritating categories (Rumpole's wife constantly being referred to as She Who Must Be Obeyed is one that wears thin).

Nevertheless, the young Rumpole is instantly likable, mixing just the right amount of moral scruples and personal ambition and this remains a fine addition to the Rumpole casebook.

Stuart McGurk

The GuardianTramp

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