A Rumpole Christmas

“A Rumpole Christmas” makes a holiday treat for the mystery lover on your shopping list.

A Rumpole Christmas By John Mortimer Viking 161 pp.,$21.95

When it comes to Christmas, Horace Rumpole is just about as brimming with good cheer as Ebenezer Scrooge, pre-haunting.  “I have no rooted objection to Christmas Day, but I must say it’s an occasion when time tends to hang particularly heavy on the hands,” the barrister muses in a slim new collection, A Rumpole Christmas. “From the early morning alarm call of carols piping on Radio Four to the closing headlines and a restless, liverish sleep, the day can seem as long as a fraud on the Post Office tried before Mr. Injustice Graves.”

The gift exchange doesn’t take long – there’s the “ritual bottle” of lavender water for Hilda (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed), and a tie for Rumpole – followed by pudding and a frozen turkey from Safeway. “I suppose what I have against Christmas Day is that the courts are all shut and no one is being tried for anything,” he sums up in the collection’s best story, “Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces.”

While Rumpole may not be ready to haul out the holly, fans of the late Sir John Mortimer’s most famous character will leap upon any excuse to spend more time with the self-proclaimed “Old Bailey Hack.” “A Rumpole Christmas” is a fine idea. We probably would have been delighted with “A Rumpole Arbor Day” or “Rumpole Talks Like a Pirate Day.” This is the first time these stories have been gathered in book form, but all have appeared previously in The Strand and other magazines.

A couple of the stories are little more than filler. But in addition to the highly enjoyable “Old Familiar Faces,” in which Rumpole visits one of Hilda’s old school chums in the frozen north and attends a pantomime, there’s “Rumpole’s Slimmed-Down Christmas.” She Who Must Be Obeyed checks herself and Rumpole in to a health spa, where he experiences two unforgettable firsts: he drinks yak milk and is hugged by a solicitor. Of the yak milk, Rumpole says, “We were told it is very popular with the mountain tribes of Tibet. It may have tasted fine there, but it didn’t, as they say of some of the finest wines, travel well.”

The collection ends on a less-joking note with “Rumpole and the Christmas Break,” where Rumpole finds himself defending a Muslim man accused of murdering a college professor to whom he had sent death threats. At the end of the day, Rumpole tells Hilda, at least they can be grateful for one thing. “The terrorist got a fair trial.... The day when a suspected terrorist doesn’t get a fair trial will be the day they’ve won the battle.” It’s an ominous warning from Mortimer, who before he became an author, playwright, and screenwriter, was himself a barrister.

“A Rumpole Christmas” isn’t the strongest of Mortimer’s collections, but it features enough classic elements to make fans of the stories and the long-running BBC series smile. There are Timsons aplenty (one of whom gets put away for receiving stolen Christmas puddings), appearances by Mrs. Justice Erskine-Brown and her opera-loving husband, and visits to Pommeroy’s.

Rumpole even throws in a few quotes from Shakespeare and “that sad old darling” Christina Rossetti, as well as musings on his much-loved and much-denigrated career. “In the varied ups and downs, the thrills and spills in the life of an Old Bailey Hack, one thing stands as stone,” he says in the opening lines of “Old Familiar Faces.” “Your ex-customers will never want to see you again.”

The same, happily, cannot be said of his readers. Christmas shopping just got a little easier for the mystery lover in your life.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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