Saturday, December 15, 2012


Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is a spy.  Well, actually she’s a glorified secretary who works for the British intelligence agency MI5 during the height of the Cold War in the early 1970s.  Serena, the daughter of an Anglican Bishop who didn’t force his religion on the family, is assigned to operation Sweet Tooth, a top secret project to recruit and pay writers who will produce novels with an anti-Communist bent.

Serena, who is posing as the employee of an arts foundation, is detailed to recruit Tom Haley, a college professor and aspiring young novelist.  When a stunningly beautiful girl walks into his office and offers him a fellowship, Haley is smitten.  Soon, Serena and Haley are lovers.  Sleeping with the target exceeds Serena’s orders from headquarters.  She loves Tom and wants to tell him the truth but how can she blow her cover?

This is the first work which I have ever read by the prolific and popular Ian McEwan.  Sweet Tooth is an intelligent novel which has as much to do with the seduction of the reader by literature as it does with spies and Cold War intrigue.  Sweet Tooth is a beautiful novel with a great ending.  Highly recommended.

Ian McEwan

Friday, November 23, 2012

Rumpole Misbehaves

According to Wikipedia an Anti-Social Behavior Order or ASBO “is a civil order made against a person who has been shown, on the balance of the evidence, to have engaged in anti-social behavior.  The orders, introduced in the United Kingdom by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, were designed to correct minor incidents that would not ordinarily warrant criminal prosecution.  The orders restrict behavior in some way, by prohibiting a return to a certain area or shop, or by restricting public behavior such as swearing or drinking alcohol.”  To Sir John Mortimer (1923 - 2009), who was famous for being a civil rights lawyer as well the creator of the fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole, the ASBO was an outrageous assault on the historic civil rights of the English people.  Hence, in his last completed Rumpole novel, Rumpole Misbehaves (2007) (published in Britain as The Anti-Social Behavior of Horace Rumpole), Mortimer uses his favorite creation to attack and parody the ASBO.

Actor Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole

Rumpole’s first client is twelve year old Peter Timson who has an ASBO issued against him for disturbing the resident’s of a posh neighborhood by playing football (soccer) on their street.  Rumpole’s second client is Graham Wetherby, a young government bureaucrat who is accused of strangling a prostitute.  The relationship between these two seemingly unrelated cases provides fine reading in the great Rumpole tradition.

Horace and Hilda (Leo McKern and Marion Mathie)

Of course, it would not be a Rumpole story without hilarity.  The fun really starts when Rumpole’s neighbors in Chambers at Number 4 Equity Court take out an ASBO against Rumpole for drinking alchohol in Chambers, eating in his office in violation of office policy, and smoking in the building.  Rumpole’s nemesis on the bench, Mr. Justice Bullingham (or as Rumpole calls him “Mr. Injustice Bullingham) still has the hots for Hilda and threatens to break up the Rumpole marriage.  She Who Must Be Obeyed has decided, once again, that she wants to read for the bar and Rumpole finally decides that he will apply to “take silk” as a Queens Counsel.

Although the earlier installments of the series were much better written than this, for fans who can’t get enough of Rumpole this is great fun.  Sadly, although Rumpole never retired and stayed, apparently ageless, in his early to mid seventies for thirty years, with Mortimer’s death in 2009 at age 85, Rumpole has finally argued his last case.  But, just like Holmes and Watson will always be waiting for a new client at 221 B Baker Street, Horace and Hilda will forever bicker at the Froxbury Mansion Flat and Horace will perpetually irritate his colleagues at No. 4 Equity Court.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror

A respected Pakistani doctor living in England is arrested and imprisoned on the suspicion of being a terrorist.  Citing national security concerns, the government refuses to release any specific information to the accused’s attorneys regarding the particulars of the evidence against him.  The case appears hopeless and it is almost certain that the accused will remain incarcerated indefinitely without trial.  The accused’s desperate wife turns to an experienced criminal barrister for help.  What will happen next?

When the experienced criminal barrister is Horace Rumpole we can expect hilarity along with a painless lesson in the highest ideals of British Justice.  Published in 2006 when Rumpole’s alter ego and creator John Mortimer was 82 (Mortimer died in 2009 at age 85) this novel was Mortimer’s criticism of the anti-terrorism laws passed by the government of then Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Author John Mortimer with the latest installment of his most famous creation.

Rumpole, who has been about age seventy something since the mid 1990s, never changes.  Neither does his wife Hilda and the entire cast of characters who practice law at Number 4 Equity Court.  In this outing Hilda buys a laptop computer which she hides away in a spare bedroom while she writes her memoirs.  There is a lot for Hilda to write about since Judge Bullingham, who Rumpole calls “The Mad Bull,” is actively pursuing Hilda after divorcing his wife.

Rumpole, of course, still doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on and takes notes with a fountain pen.  The Shakespeare and Wordsworth quoting barrister has what the government considers to be quaint notions about the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.  Witness Rumpole’s exchange with the “New Labour” Home Secretary:

‘Let me ask you this, Mr. Rumpole.  How do you take notes in court nowadays?’

‘I use a pen and my notebook.’  I gave him a truthful answer.

‘A pen!’  The Bristol accent rose to a high pitch of contempt.  ‘Would that be like . . . a quill pen by any chance?’

There were laughs from the audience, but I put him right.

‘No.  It’s a fountain pen.’

‘Really.  How very professional.  So you’re not computer literate?’

‘I’m literate.  I know very little about computers.’

‘That’s the trouble with your sort of lawyer, Mr. Rumpole.  You can’t move with the times.  Things like jury trials and the presumption of innocence may have been all very well in their day.  But times change.  History moves on.  We need quicker and more reliable results.  Modernize, Mr. Rumpole.  That’s what you need to do.’

Needless to say when it comes to the sacred rights guaranteed to Englishmen since King John issued Magna Carta, Rumpole will never compromise.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Irving Wallace's THE MAN

What if a black man had become President of the United States in the late nineteen sixties?  This is the plot of Irving Wallace’s 1964 political pot boiler The Man.

“The Man” is Douglas Dilman, an obscure black junior Senator from a Midwestern State. As a token gesture to quell racial unrest in the country,  Dillman is appointed President Pro Tempore of the Senate.  Shortly before The Man begins, the Vice-President has died of a heart attack.  When the novel begins, the office of Vice-President is vacant.  (Before the passage of the 25th Amendment there was no legal mechanism to fill a vacancy in the Vice-Presidency).  When the President and the Speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident, Senator Douglas Dilman is thrust into the Presidency.

An illustration from the Readers' Digest Condensed Book version of "The Man"

Dilman has been a “yes-man” to the leadership of his political party. (Although the novel never expressly says so, it appears that Dilman is a Democrat).  At first he falls into line with the wishes of the party leadership and the former President’s advisors.

In addition to Soviet incursions into Africa (remember this novel was written at the height of the Cold War) and racial unrest at home, Dilman has plenty of personal problems.  Dillman’s dead wife drank herself to death as a result of depression.  Dilman’s daughter is living in New York and passing for a white woman.  Dilman’s son is a member of a radical civil rights organization which is ready to use violence to achieve racial justice.

An illustration from the Reader's Digest version: 
Black Radical Students protest President Douglas Dilman

Everyone is shocked when Dilman stops being a yes man and vetoes a major entitlement bill, the Minorities Rehabilitation Program (MRP), which has almost universal support among members of the party.  Now Dilman is disliked by nearly everybody: racist whites hate Dillman because he’s black, liberals hate Dilman because he vetoed the MRP, and radical blacks hate Dilman because he’s “an Uncle Tom.”

President Douglas Dilman survives an assassination attempt.

All the stereotypes you would expect are here: the racist Southern demagogue Congressman who leads the effort to impeach Dilman; the black radicals who want try to assassinate Dilman; and the ambitious Ivy League educated Secretary of State who wants to replace Dilman.  Near the end of the novel, a cross gets burned on the front lawn of the White House and a race riot breaks out in Washington.

The Old Guard Washington insiders plot against The Man.

This being an Irving Wallace novel, there is, of course, sex.  The Secretary of State, the debonair Arthur Eaton, who is estranged from his wife, becomes involved with the emotionally unstable daughter of a powerful Southern Senator.  Eaton recommends his mistress, Sally Watson, as the White House Social Secretary.  Ultimately, Sally becomes Eaton’s spy inside the White House.  When she is caught spying by the President, she falls back on the tried and true method of accusing the black man of sexually assaulting her.

Secretary of State Arthur Eaton becomes cozy with Miss Sally Watson

Ultimately, Dilman is impeached by the House of Representatives on trumped up charges.  When The Man was written there had only been one impeachment trial in American History, that of Andrew Johnson in the 1860s.  In light of the Clinton impeachment the comments Wallace makes are very interesting:

His firm belief was that the House members, having enjoyed the catharsis of vituperation, would now realize the historic gravity of the decision they faced.  They would realize that an impeachment in modern times was unthinkable, that the legal instrument of reproof and discipline in the Constitution had become obsolete.  In fact, just the other night, unable to sleep, Dilman had come across the words of an eminent political scientist who had characterized impeachment as a “rusted blunderbuss, that will probably never be taken in hand again.”  Surely, the more judicious of the House members would see that, would think twice before signifying aye or nay.  

Ultimately, like President Andrew Johnson, Dilman is saved from impeachment by a single vote.

The real Man: President Barack Obama

It was fun reading The Man as a time capsule.  Everyone in the novel smokes.  The big foreign policy issue is containing Communism.  President Dilman visits Cape Canaveral to inspect the new Apollo program.

Although Irving Wallace did not write great literature by any stretch of the imagination, reading a Wallace novel is like eating potato chips: once you have a bite it’s hard to stop.  Wallace was a good writer who carefully constructed stories and knew how to sink the hook into the reader.  I enjoyed reading The Man a great deal.  While Wallace was not a great novelist, when a 48 year old out of print novel can still entertain a reader,  I am prepared to say that Wallace was a great story teller.

The prolific Irving Wallace (1916 - 1990)

Thanks to the blog Today's Inspiration for the illustrations from Reader's Digest.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Legal Laughs

Judge Henry Cecil Leon (1902 - 1976), who wrote under the pen name Henry Cecil, served as a County Court Judge in England from 1949 until 1967.  Judge Leon was a very prolific author turning out one comic novel after the other about lawyers, judges and the legal system

The book which I just finished, Brief Tales From the Bench (1968), is a collection of comic short stories told from the first person perspective of a County Court Judge.  Of the eight stories in the collection, four are said to be “Embellished but based on an actual case.”  The remaining four are fiction.

“Contempt of Court” is about how the Judge can hold a man in contempt of Court for saying the exact same things about the Judge that the Judge’s wife says about him.  Another involves a student whose father refuses to pay the schoolmaster tuition because his son has learned how to be a criminal at the school.  In “Perjury” “Judge Cecil” has to determine which witness is lying.  “Chef’s Special” involves a guest suing a hotel for breach of contract when he receives the “Fawlty Towers” treatment.  “Retrial” involves a convicted shoplifter suing the store which prosecuted him for damages for liable.  “The Hidden Money” involves a man who tried to hide assets from his wife during a divorce.  “The Truth” is another case in which the Judge must determine which witness is truthful.  “Made To Measure” involves a man with very eccentric tastes who refuses to pay for a custom made suit.

Judge Henry Cecil Leon

Here is my favorite quote from the book: “People are so very polite, not to say obsequious to judges that there is a danger that a judge may think he is just as important out of court as he is in court, when in fact he is not.  It is the office which is important, not the man.  This is easy to state, but not always so easy, for an average person like myself, to remember.”

The humor (or should I say “humour”) is very British.   The stories are very amusing and this provides light entertainment with a lesson.  The Bad Catholic gives Tales From the Bench three gavels out of five.  

Monday, January 2, 2012

Eclectic Reading

At long last here's the list of the books I read in 2011. The list only contains books that I finished and completely read. It does not include the tons of books that I skimmed through or read bits and pieces of.

  1. Inside the Church of Flannery O’Connor: Sacrament, Sacramental, and the Sacred in Her             Fiction Edited by Joanne Halleran McMullen   
  2. The Twelfth Imam by Joel C. Rosenberg
  3. Flannery O’Connor: A Life by Jean W. Cash    
  4. Orient Express: An Entertainment by Graham Greene 
  5. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch 
  6. Travelers Along the Way: The Men and Women Who Shaped My Life by Benedict J. Groeschel 
  7. It’s a Battlefield by Graham Greene 
  8. One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty by The Heritage Foundation 
  9. Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska 
  10. The Lion, the Mouse, and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia by Carl McColman 
  11. England Made Me by Graham Greene  
  12. Looking for the King by David Downing  
  13.  Is God Still An Englishman: How We Lost Our Faith (But Found New Soul) By Cole Moreton
  14. Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth by Oliver Hilmes  
  15. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin by Mel Gordon 
  16.  Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich 
  17.  The Shining By Stephen King 
  18. Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir by Geoffrey O’Brien 
  19. Acts of Love by Roberta Latow 
  20.  Seminary: A Search by Paul Hendrickson
  21.  A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald 
  22.  The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain 
  23.  Double Indemnity by James M. Cain Completed: August 27, 2011 
  24. The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family by Andrew Himes  
  25. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden 
  26.  Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch 
  27.  Ex-Virgin by Orrie Hitt 
  28.  Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief by Joseph Pearce 
  29.  The Inferno by Dante Aligheri Translated by Mark Musa 
  30.  Havah: The Story of Eve by Tosca Lee
  31. 11/22/63 by Stephen King 
  32.  Ordinary People by Judith Guest 
  33.  Testing the Faith: The New Catholic Fiction in America by Anita Gandolfo