A Certain Justice by P.D. James
Broken up into four “books”, A Certain Justice is a well put-together murder mystery. There are red herrings and gruesome discoveries, people lying about all sorts of things for their own reasons and a healthy mishmash of misunderstandings and mistrust due to poor communication, hurt feelings and spite. The novel can be read a number of ways: as a comment on the foster care/welfare system, parenting, the folly of putting career ambition before familial obligations, or a psychological look at how the sins of the parents affect the children. All this, and more, is jam-packed into this 400+ page novel that is so engaging and easy to read it doesn’t seem like four hundred pages.
The story begins with Miss Venetia Aldridge, QC, a London barrister and the case in which she defends an unlikable young man named Garry Ashe accused of murdering his aunt. There is no doubt in Aldridge’s mind that Ashe did, in fact, murder the horrid woman, but Aldridge is good at her job and gets the boy acquitted. Weeks later Aldridge’s daughter, Octavia, drops the bomb that she and Ashe are in love and are planning on getting married. This news sends Aldridge into a frenzy; she tries to convince Octavia of Ashe’s failings as a suitor. When this inevitably doesn’t work, she goes about trying to enlist the help of trusted acquaintances, as well as Octavia’s father, in buying off the boy so he would disappear and never be a part of Aldridge’s life ever again. But, alas, Aldridge is unable to find any support or aide. Thus ends book one.
James makes is unnervingly clear that Aldridge is not well liked: at home, in Chambers, by others wholly unconnected to her. She is well respected in her field, but is known to be abrasive and combative and therefore disliked. Aldridge’s whole life has been consumed by the Law. Even her wifely and motherly duties are superseded by her role in the court room. Since adolescence Aldridge’s solace has been found in the law, examining evidence and making arguments for or against. Her only true friend as a teen was a teacher at her father’s school, a man she was fairly indifferent of, but a man who taught her about criminal law, who sparked her interest in Argument. She escaped the horrors of home-life and school by spending time with Mr. Froggett discussing famous cases and reading from his law books.
As a mother, we quickly learn, Aldridge was less than maternal. After her divorce Aldridge put Octavia into boarding prep schools, feeling guilty when she missed school plays and other events, but never making up for her short comings and always putting her career first. We learn that Aldridge’s own upbringing was bleak and painful. Her father beat her as a child, enjoying the humiliation he was bestowing upon the child (he was known to often beat the students in his prep school as well with the same zeal) and her mother was unable to defend herself, let alone her daughter. Mother and child lived in fear of the man meant to protect and provide for them. It’s almost no wonder Aldridge had little capacity to show her daughter any affection.
Often accused of not loving her daughter by coworkers, her lover, the police and Octavia herself, Aldridge struggles to do the right thing by her only child, but is hindered by her inability to express love or show affection. Her attempts to distance Ashe from Octavia may be due to how that would reflect on Aldridge, but also stemmed from a need to keep Octavia from the pain of being betrayed by a man. The naïve girl is convinced the scumbag is truly in love with her because she has never known or recognized love when given to her and does not know what it looks like. Aldridge had never given Octavia any example of a healthy relationship, but, again, never having an example herself this is far from unbelievable.
It is interesting to note that, Aldridge, having written men off as unreliable at an early age, and therefore never trusting them to come through in a hitch, it is interesting that she turns to men for assistance in the matter concerning Octavia and Ashe. First she calls her lover, and then she calls on Laud – another lawyer and sort-of friend – and finally Octavia’s father. She never once confides her worries in a woman, even though Mrs. Buckley, her housekeeper, was probably the closest thing to a friend she actually had and could possibly have helped her out. But, once more, this isn’t surprising considering how unhelpful her mother had been in defending and protecting her from men.
Aldridge’s murder is not the only storyline James plays out for the audience of A Certain Justice. We learn about the other major members of Pawlet Court, their ambitions, secrets and lies; we learn about the police officers investigating the murders of Aldridge and Mrs. Carpenter. The members of Commander Dalgliesh’s team have changed and the players are still getting comfortable with one another. Detective Inspector Kate Miskin is our main police officer after Dalgliesh (and most likely a common player in James’s Adam Dalgliesh novels), and her journey through this investigation is not an easy one. She is a competent officer, but, Dalgliesh notes, is off her game; Kate’s personal struggle is never fully explored in the novel, but we see bits and pieces and can put them together as we read.
An overarching theme of the novel, the theme that ties Aldridge, Ashe and Kate Miskin together, is the theme of choices. Where a person starts out in life does not dictate where he or she will end up. These three characters, as well as, the Chamber’s secretary and Octavia, share a similar background: indifferent or abusive parents; abject poverty, or a few steps above (minus Octavia); missing or unknown parents and a lack of affection. But not all of these characters traveled down the same path in life. Each made choices as they went along that determined where they would end up. Ashe maybe was never given a chance to be better than he was; Aldridge rose to success out of spite or sheer will; the secretary and Kate, too, probably, were smart enough to recognize and accept help when it was offered. Octavia is the one with the rest of her life ahead of her. She can take what has happened to her, the advice Kate gives her and make something of herself – just like her mother, just like Kate.
The novel’s title is an interesting sentiment that is woven throughout the novel and stated at the end. As with The Lincoln Lawyer, A Certain Justice shows the side of the law that all are equally entitled to, but often found despicable: to be defended in a court of law. Defense lawyers don’t have to say their client is innocent, they don’t have to prove they did not commit the crime they are accused of; Defense lawyers are expected to punch holes in the prosecution’s argument; Defense lawyers are there to prove reasonable doubt. Aldridge’s occupation may seem incomprehensible or repulsive: getting murderers and rapists acquitted, but it is a role necessary in the system we have for dispensing justice. It may seem wrong that drug dealers and murderers can be let go due to insufficient evidence or doubt, but this is the system. The Justice System is not a cold calculating “machine”, as Haller calls it in The Lincoln Lawyer, the Justice System is made up of people; people with opinions and emotions, compassion, hate and empathy. Court cases are often, as Danny Kaffee says in A Few Good Men, not won by the law but by the lawyers. The lawyers’ arguments are what win and lose a trial. The arguments and the show they put on, just as much as the evidence, convince the jury one way or the other. And sometimes bad people go free and sometimes they do more bad things. And lawyers and police officers can get cocky thinking the guilty will always be punished. As another A Certain Justice barrister, Desmond Ulrick, says: “It is good for us to be reminded from time to time that our system of law is human and, therefore, fallible and that the most we can hope to achieve is a certain justice.”
Recommend: Yes. Reading this book has made me want to explore more P.D. James. You should too.