Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by John Clifford Mortimer


Rating: (Recommended)




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The latest Horace Rumpole novel from John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, satisfies the cravings of faithful readers to hear about the famous case of Rumpole’s youth, about which Mortimer has teased readers over many years with a detail or three. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter I2, pp. 100-107:


The British can be relied on to produce regular events for the entertainment of the public, as much a part of our tradition as cricket at Lord’s, stockings hung out on Christmas Eve and the pantomime on Boxing Day. A regular event, preferably in early autumn, is the famous murder trial. Staged in Court Number One at the Old Bailey, it plays to packed houses, news of it fills the daily papers and then, usually after ‘guilty’ headlines, it disappears into history, corning out perhaps in the Notable British Trials series, and then is remembered only by a few lawyers who are writing their memoirs, as I am, or by the families tragically involved.

R. v. Jerold could have been invented to fill this sensational slot. It is perhaps a sign of our times that in those faraway days there were only four courts at the Old Bailey. At the last count the number had gone up to eighteen. But even when trials were a great deal fewer Court Number One could always be relied on to produce an annual entertainment for the nation.

The summer was over, the children were back at school, the golden leaves of September drifted slowly down on a country anxious to read all about it in the Sunday tabloids, while the broadsheets were full of articles on ‘Patricide since the story of Oedipus’ and What the good people of Penge think about their sudden fame’. No wonder, with all those column inches to fill, the press benches were packed.

I sat behind my so-called leader, Hilda’s daddy, who was carefully winding and unwinding the pink tape which came around his brief;, an occupation which would concern him for much of the first day. I glanced up at the public gallery and saw Hilda, clearly excited and making herself comfortable in the front row of the dress circle.

Next to Wystan sat the prosecutor, the Chief Treasury Counsel, Thomas Winterbourne, protected by a wall of files and notebooks, underlining parts of his opening speech with variously coloured pencils. He was a large, untidy man who spoke in a deep, monotonous rumble which had, at times, a soporific effect like the distant sound of the sea. He was known to eat huge meals in the bar mess and mountains of sandwiches in Pommeroy’s Wine Bar. He was also fond of gossip and fast motorbikes.

‘Morning to you, Sherlock Rumpole. Think you know all the answers now, do you?’ It was the bray of the wretched Reggie Proudfoot, one of the prosecution juniors, who was sitting beside me in the second row. ‘I hear you’ve been doing more detective work. Wasting your time, my lad. Simply wasting your time.’

I had no intention of replying to Proudfoot’s idiotic attack. Now an usher called, ‘Silence! All stand!’ and was met by the sound of a court filled with people of ranging degrees of mobility rising to their feet. In the ensuing clatter a small scarlet figure emerged from a door, bobbed us half a formal bow and half a small smile, and Lord Jessup composed himself on the bench and then gave a little nod as he took up a pencil and opened his notebook.

‘The Queen against Jerold,’ the clerk of the court intoned. ‘Put up Simon Jerold.’

So Simon was ‘put up’ in the dock as though he was a glove puppet and part of a Punch and Judy show, and indeed, looking back on it, I suppose that was what he was, a hollowed-out figure manipulated to perform a plot worked out by lawyers. He looked pale and exhausted, lacking sleep and about to face a long and ancient procedure from which he suspected that no good would come.

I had met him with my leader earlier that day briefly in the cells, together with our solicitor, Barnsley Gough, and the industrious youth Bonny Bernard. Simon asked for a cigarette and Bernard gave him one, which he smoked awkwardly, punctuated by coughs, like someone who has just started the habit and means to continue with it for as long as he has left.

‘Now, Jerold,’ Hilda’s daddy was doing his best to sound avuncular, ‘you’re not to worry.’

This instruction was so fatuous that it even produced a faint smile from the pallid young man we were defending.

‘I mean, you’re not to worry for today in any event. Mr Winterbourne will open the case for the prosecution, and he’ll be perfectly fair, as he always is. There may just be time for a short witness this afternoon. You won’t be surprised, I’m sure, if I don’t ask any questions. Now, have you remembered at all about an attack by your father later that night? Anything that might have led you to defend yourself?’

‘I told you. He never attacked me then. And I never shot him.’ For a moment, Simon came to life.

‘We’ll see what you remember later on. In the meantime...’

‘You’re not going to ask any questions?’ Simon spoke as though his worst fears had been confirmed.

‘Let me tell you this, Jerold,’ C. H. Wystan seemed about to take our client into his confidence, ‘and this is something I have learned from a long life at the bar, a life, I may say, during which I have enjoyed a certain amount of success, that more cases are lost by lawyers asking questions than for any other reason. Is that not right, Mr Barnsley Gough?’

‘Perfectly right, Mr Wystan.’ Regrettably, our solicitor agreed.

‘You see,’ Wystan was about to explain, largely in words of one syllable, the situation as he saw it, ‘the main facts of this case are agreed. You picked up a gun and threatened your father. The gun was taken away from you and in the morning your father was found dead in his chair, shot through his heart. If we start asking questions on these facts we will only irritate the judge and bore the jury.’

Then Simon emerged again from his shell of silence and said quite loudly, ‘So you’re not going to help me?’

Wystan stared at the prisoner, speechless, as though the young man had just snatched his wig and was ready to tear off his gown. Barnsley Gough did his best to mend matters by saying, ‘You’ve got the best legal team to help you, Simon. Mr Wystan has a vast experience of these cases.’

I, to my eternal shame, said nothing, but vowed to give my client as much of my help as possible. C. H. Wystan looked at his watch and said, ‘Quarter past ten! We’d better be getting into court.’ And so we all trooped out of the cells, up into the safer surroundings of Court Number One, where my learned leader would no longer have to speak to his client.


‘Members of the jury,’ Tom Winterbourne said in his opening speech, ‘we shall call the ex-RAF officers who attended the theatrical night-out. All of those who survived will tell you that they saw Simon Jerold, the young man in the dock, pointing the Luger pistol at his father and, I’m afraid, threatening to kill.’

The appointed twelve (nine men and three women, in those distant days when only rate-payers could serve on juries) had entered the jury box looking as though they couldn’t believe what had happened to them. They were minding their own business and leading their private lives when they were unexpectedly called upon to decide that year’s sensational case. They had taken the oath to ‘well and truly try the issues between our Sovereign Lady the Queen and the prisoner at the bar’ and then sat looking serious but enigmatic as though they had little doubt, I suspected, in the contest between the Queen and Simon Jerold, who was most likely to win.

Hilda’s daddy had charged me to take a note and I was determined to do at least that. So I was writing down almost every word of Winterbourne’s, whose speech was being spoken slowly enough for my pen to follow.

‘The prosecution case,’ he rumbled and I wrote, ‘is that when all the guests had gone, this boy, this unnatural son, came out of his bedroom, regained possession of this Luger pistol that I am holding up, Prosecution Exhibit One, and, seeing his father still sitting at the fireside, he stood over him and shot him through the heart as he sat there at his ease. So ended the life of one of our unsung wartime heroes.’

This was a passage I underlined heavily. At least we’d have something to argue about. I was going to call this to my leader’s attention, but I found him in whispered conversation with our clerk, Albert, who had arrived with some news which caused the Wystan head to nod in sage agreement. Accordingly I kept what I thought might at least cause the rumbling Winterbourne some trouble until a more appropriate moment.

At the end of his opening speech, Winterbourne announced that he would first be calling one of the officers from the fatal evening, but there was a problem about the medical evidence. Dr Philimore, who carried out the post-mortems, was only available ‘first thing tomorrow morning’, after which he was flying out to Australia on an important case. The old rumbler hoped this wouldn’t ‘cause any inconvenience’.

Mr Wystan?’ The judge paused in the act of taking snuff to greet my leader in a friendly fashion.

‘I’m in some difficulty myself My Lord. My clerk has just told me I have an important application in the Court of Appeal tomorrow morning. A planning application.’ He seemed unnaturally proud of the fact. ‘However, there is no controversy about the medical evidence in this case, so my learned junior, Mr Horace Rumpole, will be able to take a careful note of what the doctor says.’

‘No controversy? I’m glad to hear it.’ His vellum-coloured Lordship had now snuffled up the dark brown powder from the back of his hand and was dabbing his upper lip with the silk handkerchief. ‘I’m delighted to hear that and I’m sure the jury are too.’ Here he swivelled round to smile confidentially at the twelve honest citizens. ‘Happily we are to be spared the confusion of medical men who may disagree, members of the jury.’

A day or two into the trial, they would have nodded wisely and smiled back at a judge anxious to woo them. Now they looked merely mystified.

The atmosphere in court changed when the first ex-RAF officer entered the witness box and the lawyers were no longer centre stage. He gave his name as Timothy Wardle and his occupation as salesman in the business of double-glazing. He had pink cheeks, curly hair and, since the war, he had put on weight so that his blue suit fitted tightly. He had the appearance of a middle-aged cherub who was find¬ing the double-glazing business a hard nut to crack.

He had flown in Bristols during the war and knew Jerold and Weston. He lived in Sutton and he met both of them after the war at local events. It was at one of these that Jerold suggested the evening out in London. We heard the all-too-familiar story of the quarrel when Simon was summoned from his bed and the jury was told how he held the Luger pistol pointed at his father and uttered a threat to kill. Simon was disarmed by ex-Pilot Officer Benson and they didn’t see him again. The party broke up about an hour later and they went their separate ways.

‘Thank you, Mr Wardle.’ The prosecutor seemed sincerely grateful, and the judge asked my leader if he had any questions.

‘The magazine!’ I whispered at the back of Wystan’s left shoulder. ‘Ask him about the magazine!’

What was that, Rumpole?’ he muttered without turning round.

‘It’s in the notes I gave you. Ask him about the magazine.’

It seemed I might just as well have been enquiring about the latest copy of the Tatler, and at that moment the judge told us he had been looking at the clock and, it being just on four, he intended to pack up for the day. ‘The jury have no doubt had a great deal to digest. However, as there appears to be a disagreement in the defence team, perhaps the prosecution would have Mr Wardle available tomorrow morning when you, Mr Wystan, return from the Court of Appeal. Is that agreeable to you, Mr Winterbourne?’

‘Certainly, My Lord,’ the agreeable rumble came from the other side of the court.

‘Very well then, ten-thirty tomorrow morning, members of the jury.’ At which, we were all upstanding and the Lord Chief Justice deprived us of his company.

‘I just thought that the evidence about the magazine was important,’ I tried to explain to Hilda’s daddy as we left the court.

We agree with everything that happened at that party, as I’ve tried to tell you, Rumpole.’ My leader was a little tetchy. ‘Now you promise me you won’t attack the doctor’s evidence.’

‘Of course I won’t attack his evidence.’

‘Excellent! I’ll be back from the Appeal Court as soon as I can be. It is, as I’m sure you realize, an important matter. Do you think the client understands that?’

The client, when we said goodbye to him that day, seemed to understand nothing, or care very much either. He stared at the ground between his feet in silence. But I felt a kind of excitement, as though the next day offered a chance, if I could only grab it, of great importance in the Rumpole career.


Mortimer structures Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders as a memoir, and it’s a fine one, providing consistent reading pleasure.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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