Bertram Wooster, Meet Sherlock Holmes


By John Mortimer

Viking, 261 pp., $22.95

Some people contend that John Mortimer's creation Horace Rumpole is a lofty hybrid of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and P.G. Wodehouse's Bertram Wooster.

Perhaps the former is apparent in Rumpole's rather pedantic but somewhat eccentric nature. He is a sleuth in the form of an old-school London barrister. But one must draw a sharp line in comparing Rumpole to the Wodehouse prototypes, even Jeeves.

While the "Rumpole" books are supposed to be humorous, I rather likened the humor to being subjected to the tireless vacuities of an elder club statesman whose whimsies one is obliged to laugh at for fear of being purged from a particular social circle.

And in terms of humor and volume of writing, Wodehouse stands in a class alone.

Nonetheless, the latest Rumpole episodes are alive and well in "Rumpole and the Angel of Death," which consists of six mysteries of approximately 35 pages each. The reader joins Rumpole in his pursuit of justice through a variety of English settings - countryside, village, and cityscape.

The book delivers some unusual and varied plots. For example, a prisoner's presentation of Shakespeare in the local jail leads to a Shakespearean play within a play whodunit regarding...; well, never mind, revealing more of the plot would betray the mystery.

A good mystery needs time to build suspense, and the reader will find a solidly developing story line in each of these tales, including the strange murder with a golf club and the murder at the fox hunt, among others.

What fails to develop is the full character of Rumpole and his largely unseen foil, his devoted wife, Hilda, although one tale of Rumpole's courtroom escapades in the volume is narrated exclusively by her.

Like Holmes, Rumpole cuts to the quick but unlike Wooster, he fails at wit. One might say this is not such a tragic flaw in mysteries. But it detracts from Mortimer's considerable effort to develop humor as a means of sustaining a lively pace and an element of farce.

In short, Rumpole ponders and mumbles a bit too much, something one presumes is an intended aspect of his tattered, black-robed and white-wigged charm. This routine weakens quickly, so no matter how distinctive each plot is, each story seems like the last one. There is no mystery to this review: Rumpole left me longing for Bertie Wooster.


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