As many a comedian-turned-writer has found to his or her cost, writing good humorous fiction is a whole different level of difficulty to simply being funny on stage. I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors who have consistently managed to combine genuinely funny writing with style and readability. Wodehouse, of course, has to be one of those digits. (But don't get me started on so called humorous Booker Prize nominees - they wouldn't know funny if it bit them.) And one chubby finger surely must be allocated to John Mortimer and Rumpole of the Bailey.
Mortimer wasn't the first to combine the law and humour. There was a lot of gentle amusement to be had from Henry Cecil's series of law-based novels like Brothers in Law. Cecil's was observational humour. His stories were based on experiences real barristers might go through, just exaggerated to bring out the funny side. Rumpole, on the other hand, is full scale legal pantomime, bringing on full scale laughter to Cecil's gentle smile.
As a character, Horace Rumpole has everything going for him. He is a supporter of the underdog, always the defender, always prepared to pull a success from the jaws of failure, despite the whole legal system weighing against him. If he has a tendency to resort to catch phrases... it's not exactly unheard of in comedy. He is a relic in his chambers, for ever battling the forces of modernization and efficiency, forever injecting the human touch... plus a cigar, and a large glass of Chateau Thames Embankment.
Rumpole is, simply one of the best literary creations of the twentieth century. If you haven't read any Rumpole, the new collection I've just got hold of is going to be the ideal introduction. It combines seven stories chosen by the author as his favourites in 1993 with seven of a more recent vintage. This gives an excellent feel for the whole opus, around 80 stories and a handful of novels. If, like me, you are a long term Rumpole fan, I admit there is less to make you rush to the bookstore, as they've all been published before, though the most recent of the stories, Rumpole and the Christmas Break, is one that had so far evaded me.
For the out-and-out Rumpole devotees there are also the first three chapters of a Rumpole novel, left unfinished on Mortimer's death. I really can't bring myself to read this, as once I've started a Rumpole I need to finish it, and as soon as possible. To venture into that would be cruel indeed.
If you haven't read much Rumpole (or none at all), or if you want a Rumpole-oid gift it's hard to go wrong with this 500 page collection, as pleasingly rotund as the great man himself. It's pure legal comedy gold. Forever Rumpole is available from Amazon.co.uk as a hardback or on Kindle and similarly from Amazon.com as hardback and on Kindle.