Terrorism and the grumpy old lawyer


Rumpole and the reign of terror

By John Mortimer

Penguin/Viking, 2006

184 pages, $39.95 (hb)

"Dr Khan", explains everyone's favourite grumpy old lawyer, Horace Rumpole, "is devoted to the royal family, roast beef and cricket. In that respect he's a great deal more English than I am." But it hasn't stopped the Pakistani doctor being held indefinitely without charge as a terrorist suspect in John Mortimer's latest Rumpole novel.

Dr Mahmood Khan, a London hospital doctor and political exile from Pakistan, finds his defender in Rumpole through the testimonial of his wife, Tiffany (of the Timson clan of south London villains who have kept Rumpole in Chateau Thames Embankment for many years).

Rumpole, patron saint of lost causes, battles for a way through the obstacle course erected by New Labour's home secretary and minister of justice to deny terrorist suspects their legal rights such as the right to presumption of innocence, to have the prosecution lay charges (with details of places, names and dates), to make Special Branch to reveal their sources, and to have a jury trial.

Accused by all and sundry conservatives of living in the past and exhorted to get with the new anti-terrorist times, Rumpole holds out, determined to hold to account a government he angrily accuses of "working night and day to collaborate with the terrorists" to give away centuries-old legal and civil rights.

It's not giving away anything to say that Khan has been stitched up, but by whom? There are "experienced lock-pickers on either side of the law" (Special Branch or a jealous Timson) who all have reasons to want Khan banged up and who had access to his desk at the hospital where incriminating letters of involvement in terrorist plots were found (suspiciously easily). The answer will surprise.

What doesn't surprise is that Mortimer, a former barrister, deeply cares about civil liberties and justice, now threatened by a politically exploited terror emergency. Mortimer is not just an accomplished light entertainer who has delighted us with a great comic character. He has given us something more solid — the defence of human rights against their state and government abusers.

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