Sherlock of the Bailey

Comparing two great literary characters : Sherlock Holmes and Horace Rumpole.

By Robin Rowles

The character Sherlock Holmes is well-known to the readers of La Gazette221b, but that of Horace Rumpole may not be familiar. Rumpole is a British barrister, a lawyer qualified to represent clients in the higher courts in the UK. Rumpole is a junior barrister, because Rumpole never prosecutes, only defends, and therefore is ineligible to ‘take silk’ and become a Queen’s Council. The expression ‘take silk’ comes from the silk gowns that QC’s wear in court. Barristers obtain their cases, known as briefs, through their client’s solicitor.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a television series transmitted on ITV in the UK from 1978 to 1992. The character was created by former barrister John Mortimer who novelised the TV episodes and expanded the Rumpole franchise with further stories. Rumpole, played by Leo McKern, is an ageing barrister who is married to Hilda, or ‘She who must be obeyed’. Rumpole spends much of his after-work hours in Pomeroy’s wine bar in Fleet Street, drinking cheap claret which he nicknames ‘Thames Chateau Embankment’. He’s fond of poetry and frequently quotes from the Oxford Book of English Verse, the Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch edition. Rumpole doesn’t usually win cases on points of law, he prefers to demolish witnesses in cross-examination.

Several of the regular cast from the Rumpole TV series made appearances in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series. Dennis Lill, who played Inspector Bradstreet in Sherlock Holmes, was Mr ‘Bonnie’ Barnard, the solicitor who frequently engages Rumpole. Patricia Hodge was Lady Hilda Trelawney-Hope in ‘The Second Stain’. In Rumpole, her character Miss Trant rises from inexperienced junior barrister to High Court judge. Later in the series, she marries the hapless Claude Erskine-Brown, who loses more cases than he wins. Erskine-Brown was played by Julian Curry and was Albert Shlessinger in ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’. Regrettably, Leo McKern didn’t appear in the Granada series. However, he did play a very effective Professor Moriarty in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975.

Holmes and Rumpole are experts on typewriters and bloodstains. The second short story in the Canon, ‘A Case of Identity’ has a not dissimilar plot to ‘Rumpole and the Married Lady’, with communication by typewritten letters and impersonation. ‘A Case of Identity’ is solved by Holmes’ observation of tiny imperfections in a well-used typewriter creates a unique typeface. ‘Rumpole and the Married Lady’ is solved by Rumpole noting the difference between an Olivetti and an Imperial, plus a minute break in the ‘s’. I wonder how Holmes and Rumpole would solve a similar case today, when the manual typewriter has largely, but not entirely, been replaced with the word processor and inkjet printer.

Sherlock Holmes knew about blood and bloodstains because in the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Holmes demonstrates to Watson the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ test to discover if an old stain on clothing was a bloodstain. Holmes was very up in forensics. It’s both probable and possible he followed his self-prescribed course of studies at the British Library as well as his experiments at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. During Holmes’ lifetime the British Library was housed within the British Museum in Bloomsbury, but in the 1980s it was moved to its present location at King’s Cross.  

In ‘Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade’, Rumpole defends a mentally retarded man accused of stabbing his friend in the neck. The case turns on bloodstains and where spatters and splashes of blood would have landed on the assailant’s clothing. Musing over the case whilst washing up after dinner, Rumpole carries out his own forensic experiment, by stabbing the kitchen sponge and noting where the splashes of water went, until interrupted by Mrs Rumpole. Sherlock Holmes would probably have appreciated Rumpole’s method, although it wasn’t as dramatic as beating corpses to ascertain how far bruising occurs post-mortem.  

Further evidence, no pun intended, of Rumpole’s knowledge of bloodstains is demonstrated in ‘Rumpole’s Return’ when Rumpole is tempted out of retirement in Florida. Rumpole’s comeback case is defending a young tax inspector accused of murdering a member of the aristocracy on a London Underground platform and then writing a bizarre note in the deceased’s own blood! To win this case, Rumpole must cross examine his old friend, pathologist Professor Ackerman, who just happened to write the definitive book about bloodstains. However, Rumpole studies Professor Ackerman’s book and successfully undermines the Professor’s forensic evidence during cross-examination.

These are just a handful of examples where the Rumpole method of winning cases runs parallel to the Holmesian method of solving them. John Mortimer was a Sherlock Holmes fan, and this comes through in the Rumpole plots. In a later episode, ‘Rumpole and the Sporting Life’, Rumpole defends the wife of a jockey, accused of shooting her husband. Whilst examining the locus in quo, the ‘scene of the event’, the local solicitor asks Rumpole if he is going to get on his hands and knees and grub around for cigarette ash and other clues. Rumpole declines to do so, but Sherlockians immediately get the Holmesian in-joke.  One final question remains unanswered. Imagine Rumpole, the master at cross-examination, questioning Sherlock Holmes, the expert’s expert witness. Clash of the Titans or the irresistible force versus the immovable object?