Book: A Rumpole Christmas Stories

Title: A Rumpole Christmas Stories by John Mortimer
Reviewed by: Jonathan Schindler
Genre: Comedy, Mystery
Publisher: Viking
Date: October 29, 2009

If you are like me, then you too think that the Christmas season is far too short. The four or so weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are not nearly enough time for all the music that needs listening, lights that need viewing, eggnog that needs drinking, and holiday books that need reading. Christmas is a special season when, despite the hustle and bustle of shopping and parties and the moaning of an overburdened schedule about to buckle, the images of the cozy hearth and hot drink reign in my mind.
And cozy is exactly the word I would use to describe A Rumpole Christmas, the newest (and, unfortunately, posthumous) release of Rumpole stories from John Mortimer. All of these stories have appeared before in one form or another, but it is the combination of Christmas capers that gives this collection its cozy feeling

Rumpole—barrister, Old Bailey hack, and a bit of a Scrooge himself—doesn’t care too much for Christmas. As he explains, “I suppose what I have against Christmas Day is that the courts are all shut and no one is being tried for anything.” Still, while the courts may be on hiatus, crime never takes a break, and it is up to Rumpole to solve the mysteries necessary to perform his duty to justice (and get his clients off). As if solving crimes weren’t enough, Rumpole must also navigate the dangerous waters of a “health farm” (where he encounters “a bicycle that you could exhaust yourself on without getting anywhere”); an arctic Norfolk Christmas (which finds Rumpole “hugging the radiator”); a British pantomime, for which Rumpole feels deceptive nostalgia; and the other whims of She Who Must Be Obeyed, his wife, Hilda.

It may seem odd to call a collection “cozy” when the stories involve murder and adultery, blackmail and robbery. Yet it is Mortimer’s particular brand of genius that makes them so. Mortimer keeps the sordid details to a minimum, allowing Rumpole’s singular voice to steal the show. Rumpole as a narrator is humorous without being flamboyant, dry without being boring, intelligent without being stuffy. American humor, I’ve found, tends toward outrageous narrators; Rumpole is much more subdued, the “straight man,” but he is no less enjoyable to read. The Rumpole stories make me think of what P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories would be like if they were narrated by Jeeves instead of Wooster. And, in addition to Rumpole’s warm narration, the Christmas spirit, continually mentioned and observed, and a cast of recurring characters to share it with provide the firelight for this cozy collection.

A Rumpole Christmas is sure to delight this Christmas. I read that this volume is perfect as a stocking stuffer; its merit makes it better suited to be a main gift in its own right. A Rumpole Christmas is likely to become for me a holiday staple, alongside Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Henry Van Dyke’s Story of the Other Wise Man, stories that display and embody the Christmas spirit they spread.

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