DUNSTER By John Mortimer, Viking, 296 pp., $21, 14.99 British pounds.
RUMPOLE ON TRIAL By John Mortimer, Viking, 244 pp., $21, 14.99 British pounds.
WELL, there goes $42. Anyone familiar, even in the most tangential way, with John Mortimer will want both of his new books, "Dunster" and "Rumpole on Trial."
The last time Mortimer wrote a novel, "Titmuss Regained" (1990), he closed his argument, begun in "Paradise Postponed" (1986), about what the selfish scourge of Thatcherism had done to the British. Leslie Titmuss, the joyless Cabinet minister who rose from 'umble beginnings, was dismissed as incapable of true love because his mind was so full of his own life's victory over adversity. What would Titmuss make of Prime Minister John Major, who, by behaving rather humanely despite his equally non-U backgroun d, seems to be tempering Mortimer's theories?
"Dunster" has something else to say about British society. The novel worries about the search for truth and the destruction that can accompany it. Richard Dunster is a cocksure young writer who thinks he has discovered something about a revered journalist and television producer, enough to bring down the man's enviable reputation. He succeeds disastrously in the end.
Throughout the book, the reader is given the choice between two versions of a World War II incident: It was either a travesty by the Germans against their Italian allies or an atrocity by the British troops. The ending is worth hanging on for, though the book suffers a bit from a wandering second act. But the writing, as always, is fine, especially during the climactic libel trial.
Mortimer is, after all, a former barrister. Getting at the truth of the situation has been the main point of his work. At the end of "Dunster," he makes you realize that the assurance of young writers and journalists is to be doubted strenuously. And the same must be said for young lawyers.
Now then, if callowness is the problem, then the antithesis of callowness, on any level you care to name, is Horace Rumpole. There are seven Rumpole tales in "Rumpole on Trial." After eight other collections of Rumpole stories, one might think the trial might be on Mortimer's ability to prolong the appeal of his hoarse and rumpled barrister. But there's a fine edge to this collection.
In fact, in these stories, Rumpole comes closer to disbarment and ignominy, to say nothing of divorce from She Who Must Be Obeyed, than he ever has before. All the familiar characters in Number 3 Equity Court and the Old Bailey, as well as those out in the London underworld, are included, with their complex little comings and goings.
And the Rumpoles' life in their "mansion flat" in the Gloucester Road goes on, testimony to the English tendency to hang on to cranky legal systems as well as spouses. In fact, one night a crime is committed in their apartment itself. A midnight prowler is heard. Mrs. Rumpole awakes:
"Rumpole. Rumpole!" She Who Must Be Obeyed woke me with a sharp dig in the ribs from her side of the matrimonial bed. "Can you hear something?"
"I can hear you." ...
"What is it now?"
"Someone's in the flat."
"We're in the flat. We usually are at night."
"Don't tell me to `shush.' I'm not the one who started this conversation."
And thus starts "Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Johnson," second to the last story in this collection, which you can happily read for yourself.