Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Silence is golden, or at least smiled upon by the law

Lately, any time I find myself between novels on a weekend--Saturday suddenly stretching before me without an any endings beckoning--I open up the The Third Rumpole Omnibus (1997) and continuing my slow journey through the complete career of John Mortimer's perpetually amused barrister. Rumpole definitely isn't for everyone: leaving aside the fact that, were he to actually be one's colleague, the irritation would be endless, there's the problem that Mortimer's stories about him all hew to a simple formula wherein Rumpole takes on a case whose themes end up resonating in his interactions with his colleagues, wife, and acquaintances. It's all very schematic and repetitive, with Rumpole making the same sort of jokes and observations about the same sort of human failings story after story. In their reliance on the tried and true, the Rumpole books are close kin to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories, but it's a comparison by which they suffer greatly: Stout created two truly unforgettable characters and a host of lesser ones, and his stories ripple with linguistic verve in a way that Mortimer's never do.

Yet, in this world of imperfection, the Rumpole stories are plenty good enough. Rumpole may be no Nero Wolfe, but who is? He's funny, smart, convincing, and never less than good company. Even the weakest Rumpole stories are entertaining, and in aggregate they're an achievement of which John Mortimer could justly be quite proud, and in which readers can take real joy.

Last Sunday morning found me reading a story that quickly became one of my favorites in Rumpole's whole ouevre, "Rumpole and the Right to Silence." It's a well-assemble, well-thought-out, smart, funny story, and it would be a solid place to start with Rumpole if you've not tried him.

Today, though, I'm simply going to share the opening, which, as is common with Rumpole, establishes the current cultural, political, and legal scene (in this case, circa 1990):
What distresses me most about our times is the cheerful manner in which we seem prepared to chuck away those blessed freedoms we have fought for, bled for and got banged up in chokey for down the centuries. We went to all that trouble with King John to get trial by our peers, and now a lot of lawyers with the minds of business consultants want to abolish juries. We struggled to get the presumption of innocence, that golden thread that runs through British justice, and no one seems to give a toss for it any more. What must we do, I wonder. Go back to Rumnymede every so often to get another Magna Carta and cut off King Charles's head at regular intervals to ensure our constitutional rights? Speaking entirely for myself, and at my time of life, I really don't feel like going through all that again.
Rumpole goes on, explicitly stating the theme of his story, to note that the right most under attack at that moment is the right to silence.

Which leads me to my other between-books weekend reading: the aforementioned Nero Wolfe. I followed "Rumpole and the Right to Silence" on Sunday with "Method Three for Murder," from Three at Wolfe's Door (1960). In that story, Archie lays out for a client (his own client, unusually enough, as the story opens with him angrily leaving Wolfe's employ and . . . well, it's complicated, and it ends with Wolfe technically working for Archie, which is fun to watch) her options when she's taken up for questioning:
"There are only three methods that are good in the long run. You have strong fingers."

"I'm sorry." Her grip relaxed a little, but she held on. "What are the three methods?"

"One. Button your lip. Answer nothing whatever. Two. Tell the truth straight through. The works. Three. Tell a simple basic lie with no trimmings, and stick to it. If you try a fancy lie, or a mixture of truth and lies, or part of the truth but try to save some, you're sunk. Of course I'm just talking to pass the time. In the present situation, as far as I know, there is no reason why you shouldn't just tell the truth."
And if you believe that last, well, Archie'd like you to see if you can get Inspector Cramer's job.

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