I’m always boggled at how much has to be accomplished up front when writing short mysteries. Those first paragraphs are vital…(although, really, what paragraphs are not vital, eh?) Whenever I begin a new novella, I consult the expert on crime, my leader,
Rumpole of the Bailey.
We fans know about Rumpole, the barrister Underdog Hero—the Onion Knight of the courtroom. London’s Hedgerow Knight. We know that he likes his life as it is, the battles against the odds at the Old Bailey, in chambers, or at home, after which the well-earned hours of respite at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar with a glass of the old plonk. I often think Rumpole’s mysteries are as much about the defence of Rumpole’s realm as about deduction. Each story offers us a joust and a mystery. What a treat. And what a challenge to set up.
Here are some Mortimer first lines….
“What distresses me most about our times is the cheerfulness in which we seem prepared to chuck away those freedoms we have fought for, bled for and got banged up in the chokey for down the centuries.”
“Mr Justice Graves. What a contradiction in terms!”
“There is, when you come to think about it, no relationship more important than that of a man with his quack—or ‘regular medical attendant’, as Soapy Sam Ballard would no doubt choose to call him.”
“As anyone who has cast half an eye over these memoirs will know, the second of the Rumpole commandments consists of the simple injunction ‘Thou shalt not prosecute.’ Number one is ‘Thou shalt not plead guilty.’”
A jumble matching challenge… These quotes are first lines from the stories Rumpole for the Prosecution, Rumpole and the Quacks, Rumpole at Sea and Rumpole and the Right to Silence. If you guessed them all, it’s a tribute to your perspicacity and Mortimer’s talent for titles. And for setting up his jousting opponent in the very first line.
John Mortimer, Rumpole A La Carte. London, Viking Penguin, 1990.
Next time, Part 2: Rumpole A La Carte, a swift, piercing look at the setup.