I don’t write blog posts about all the books I read, especially those that I read primarily for entertainment. Just as some books may be good reading but not provide much discussion in book clubs (see my previous post), they don’t provide for much to write about in a blog post.
Even with books that might give me a fair amount to say, if I’ve already read – and blogged about – other novels by the same author, I often find little to say that I didn’t say in a post about a previous book. I don’t generally have much to say about the plot – if you read a book you’ll find that out for yourself. And the kind of ideas discussed and the style of writing are often similar from one book to another. (That’s not a bad thing, I just am not inclined to write what feels repetitive unless the book is absolutely fantastic.)
In light of my previous post about book club books, however, I decided I did want to write something about P. D. James’ A Certain Justice. (Note: this is unrelated to the R-rated movie of the same title coming out in 2014.) I had nothing much to say about the last P. D. James book I read, Shroud for a Nightingale, which one reader review of the book I just read calls “brilliant” and James’ “most intricately plotted or fast-paced novel.” But A Certain Justice is thought-provoking in ways that Shroud for a Nightingale was not.
As another reader review points out, A Certain Justice is certainly not fast-paced. “It will appeal to those who like the more slow-paced, character driven English detective novel.” I guess I like slow-paced, character driven novels. (Maybe I need to find more of those English detective novels.) I thoroughly enjoyed it, but didn’t feel an urge to stay up late reading to find out what came next. And that’s a good thing – it gave me plenty of good reading without interfering with my sleep.
The big ideas in the book, not surprisingly, have to do with justice. But it never takes off into abstract theorizing; when the concept of justice is dealt with explicitly, it contributes to development of the characters, and perhaps some foreshadowing of what will happen later.
The most obvious issue has to do with the presumption of innocence. The standard for determining guilt is set high enough that sometimes guilty people do get acquitted. Or not even brought to trial, if the prosecution does not feel it has a strong enough case. A Certain Justice provides examples of both.
Is that a weakness of our legal system or a strength? Would society be safer if it were easier to convict the accused, even if it means a few more innocent people being convicted also? I’m sure many people think so – but not those who have been wrongfully accused, or their friends and family.
The fact is, there’s no perfect justice in this world. One of the minor themes in A Certain Justice is the subject of religious belief. Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, from whose point of view much of the investigation is seen, muses on this topic, especially when a priest becomes involved in the storyline. Belief in God and the hereafter provides a certain comfort in light of the injustice experienced in this world. But religious faith has never been a part of Kate’s life, even as a child.
The influence of childhood experiences is another “big idea” in this novel. At least four characters had unhappy childhoods: Venetia Aldridge, the barrister who is murdered (and this is no spoiler – while the murder doesn’t occur until a quarter of the way through the book, the reader knows, from the first paragraph, precisely when it will occur); Garry Ashe, accused of murdering his aunt and (successfully) defended by Venetia; Octavia, Venetia’s daughter; and Kate Miskin.
Venetia had the advantages of intelligence and a good education, and had a highly successful career, but appears to have been unloving and largely unlovable. Ashe was rejected by his mother and bounced from one foster home to another, unable or unwilling to form emotional ties with anyone. Octavia grew up with wealth but little love, with Venetia caring more about her career than her family and Venetia’s husband leaving them (not hard to imagine why) when Octavia was young. Kate also came from a very disadvantaged background, but by determination left that world behind.
How much of the destructive behavior (whether by violence, indifference, or ruthlessness) of Venetia, Ashe, or Octavia can be attributed to the lack of love they received as children? Does this excuse them, or at least mitigate it? Could they, like Kate, have used it as a motivation to rise about it rather than be emotionally warped by it? (I’m not saying that Kate is unaffected by it; her devotion to police work seems to have taken the place of devotion to faith or family. But she does not seem to hurt others as a result of past hurts to herself.)
There is no happy resolution to most of the conflicts in this novel. Some are “resolved” by the death of one or more characters. Others are left open, so that the reader may speculate what may happen later to these characters – just what that advice about picking books for book clubs said to look for.
But while it’s hardly a “happy” book, it’s not depressing either. Those who die are not especially sympathetic characters, even if we know what circumstances in their lives motivated their actions. The justice system is not able to provide what we would consider justice in any of these cases. Yet it does what it can, and in its limited way provides, as the title suggests, “a certain justice.”