PG Wodehouse once complained that comedy was bloody hard work, but he kept on churning out glittering, bubbly prose almost until the day he died. The beauty of the Wodehouse canon, as has been often remarked, is that no word of it ever feels like work, and that same balancing act was well known to his most obvious literary heir, the late John Mortimer. Although he enjoyed a certain notoriety as a barrister at London's Old Bailey, Mortimer achieved his measure of immortality outside its chambers - for it was Mortimer who gave us Rumpole.
Horace Rumpole, that is, the Old Bailey barrister: plump, perennially dishevelled Rumpole, mainstay of No 3 Equity Court, who subsists on "the rich pickings of legal aid", enjoys a glass of "Château Thames Embankment" at Pommeroy's bar after a hard day in court and who never pleads guilty. Mortimer created Rumpole for a television play in 1975, reprised the character for a TV series in 1978 and the ensuing flow of stories starring Rumpole and his supporting cast won a comfortable popularity with murder-mystery fans - a popularity hugely abetted by veteran actor Leo McKern in the lead. Not since the days of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes had an actor so thoroughly inhabited such a role, and through that popularity the Rumpole enterprise flourished.
There were 11 collections of short stories, three omnibus editions, four collections and, at the time of Mortimer's death in 2009, four full-length novels - Rumpole and the Angel of Death, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, and The Anti-social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole. After the author's death, sporadic attempts were made to sustain things. A "Christmas" volume was cobbled together and there have been, and will be, further dramatic interpretations, as heretical as they seem without McKern, who died in 2002. This impulse is as understandable financially as it is emotionally; it's not just the Mortimer estate lawyers who'd like to see this Old Bailey duffer go on forever.
As with Wodehouse, so too with Rumpole: the essence of the comedy comes from the comfortable confines of its created world. We trade Wodehouse's lunatic-crowded English country houses and the Prohibition-era nightclubs of New York for Mortimer's Old Bailey locales, from the cells of Wormwood Scrubs, where Rumpole can often be found conferring with the Timson clan, that family of hapless, small-time South London villains whose crimes have kept Rumpole in legal fees for decades, to the trial rooms of the Uxbridge Magistrate's Court, where our dogged hero does battle with nefarious judges from the clerk's room of No 3 Equity Court, presided over by "Soapy" Sam Ballard, the sanctimonious Head of Chambers, to the humble homestead in the Gloucester Road, presided over by Rumpole's imperious wife Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed".
The glory of these stories and novels - their genius, no less than Wodehouse's, though less widely recognised - is how much they manage to entertain within the strict confines of their construction. In this Mortimer was the most unlikely of artists, and Rumpole stories are the most unlikely of sonnets, a description that would have pleased our hero, a devoted fan of The Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch edition).
Alas, it's a fixed canon. Mortimer, especially in later years, sent these things to press as soon as they were completed. There can be no lost Rumpole stories - only fragments, abandoned afterthoughts, incomplete drafts like the fugitive Aubrey-Maturin pages the publishers of Patrick O'Brian so ignominiously pulled from his dead hands. The urge to see new Rumpole adventures is, as mentioned, perfectly human, perfectly understandable - and it's to be resisted for exactly that reason.
Like all great comic characters, Rumpole is no stranger to resurrection. In Rumpole and the Age of Retirement, he allows his long-suffering chambers partners to believe he's finally retiring - then smilingly keeps on going (and gladly confiscates the commendatory mantlepiece-clock tendered as his going-away gift). In Rumpole and the Last Resort, our wily barrister encourages the legal world to believe he's actually died, in order to produce a long-overdue payment from an oily law firm ("There are no smiling faces today at Paisley, Winterbottom and Blythe," Hilda is assured - a claim that becomes certain when she demands the hefty payment). In the later novel Rumpole Rests His Case, he is temporarily felled by a mild heart attack and faces the prospect of hanging it all up - only to begin championing justice from his hospital bed