Horace Rumpole Rides Again

WITH cigar ash on his ties and cynicism in his veins, Horace Rumpole may not be some people's idea of the proper British barrister. But for his many infatuated fans - from the fictional criminals he's defended at the London's historic Old Bailey to voracious viewers he's ensnared via the PBS ``Mystery!'' series, Rumpole is perfectly imperfect. The inspired (and alas, fictional) operation is just one more dazzling bit of evidence of John Mortimer's elastic genius. Author of everything from novels (``Paradise Postponed'') to television adaptations (``Brideshead Revisited''), Mortimer has a cheerfully ironic view of life that has met its full (and full-bodied) embodiment in ``Rumpole `a la Carte.'' Along the way, Mortimer gives us a look at modern life - and the singularities of modern British life - that might be hard to swallow, but harder to dispute.

Rumpole again frustrates, delights, and saves the skins of his fellow barristers in these six droll tales. Once again we meet Rumpole's allies and antagonists: Claude Erskine-Brown, the opera-loving barrister who tries ever so feebly (and unsuccessfully) to cheat on imposing wife Phillida; Uncle Tom, the chamber's dotty senior member who never lets work or reality get in the way of his daily golf putting practice; and pompous (Soapy) Sam Ballard, who has taken to leaving early, carrying a mysterious sma ll bag.

Nouvelle cuisine and those who serve it get their just desserts in the title story, when Rumpole tackles a restaurant scandal involving a small brown mouse and a marital indiscretion.

Can a second honeymoon (and we know whose idea that was) with She Who Must Be Obeyed prove anything but disastrous? In ``Rumpole at Sea,'' Rumpole finds himself stuck on a cruise not only with his wife, but also with an Old Bailey judge, Mr. ``Get Into Bed With the Prosecution'' Graves. Rumpole tries to hide out, unsuccessfully but quite hilariously. And Mortimer has some fun of his own by sticking a mystery writer on board, as well.

Even on dry land, Rumpole has a hard time of it. In ``Rumpole for the Prosecution,'' he decides to prosecute a case (Rumpole always defends). But he finds his opponent so feeble that he helps out by raising objections to his own arguments.

Speaking of arguments, those who love books are supposed to sneer at television adaptations, but who could argue against the brilliant portrayal of Rumpole by Leo McKern on television? A new series is supposed to air this year, featuring these six stories, and if that's true, it would be sweet justice indeed.

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