My dictionary (the Macquarie Third Edition) (and yes I do still have a great, big physical dictionary that I can barely lift it’s so heavy) defines justice at some length but the first entry is the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness. Which makes justice about the most intangible concept I can think of, and certainly not something that the ‘criminal justice system’ seems to have a lot to do with on many occasions. When the kind of lawyer you can afford has more to do with determining your handling in that system than the crime you have committed it can’t really be justice, can it? I have a fondness for those works of crime fiction where the concept of justice is seen as something separate from whatever ‘the system’ might provide. I don’t think I’m advocating becoming a vigilante (though on some days….) but I like exploring the theme anyway.
This post has spoilers so if you haven’t read the book mentioned at the beginning of each paragraph and think you might like to one day, skip ahead.
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is probably the world’s best known work of crime fiction in which the idea of justice being applied to a criminal outside ‘the system’ is explored. When a man is murdered on the train that Hercule Poirot is traveling on, it falls to his little grey cells to work out that he was killed because of a despicable act he had committed in his past…an act he had not been punished for. Poirot, naturellement mes amis, also identifies who killed the man. But Poirot is asked, begged even, to consider not turning the murderer over to the authorities on the basis that the murder was a just one. And in the end, he agrees. I re-read the book last year and also recently watched the David Suchet TV movie of the story and both times was reminded what a difficult, soul- searching decision Poirot had to put aside his respect for the law in this instance (this version did a much better job of this than the 1970’s film with Albert Finney horribly miscast as Poirot).
Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage which I read earlier this year also tackles this theme, in an even more confronting way. The book is the first in the Brazilian series featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva and it is the policeman’s own back story which addresses this notion of justice. Members of Silva’s family were killed when he was young and the perpetrators never found, until Silva was old enough to start tracking them down himself that is. And dealing out his own brand of justice when he did so. What makes his actions so thought-provoking is that he is a policeman himself now, and an honest one amongst many who are corrupt. Does he get a pass because it was his family? Is it OK to be handing out justice in whatever way you have available – sometimes within the law, sometimes not – as long as it’s morally right as per the definition?
Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime is a lighter-hearted take on the theme, involving a pair of Spanish private detectives who are tasked with discovering if the wife of a prominent politician is having an affair which leads them to become involved in a murder case. And when they solve that they have to decide whether justice is served by alerting the authorities.
In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo we find one of the most violent cases of justice being applied outside the law. The book’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, having been raped by the legal guardian appointed for her by the State, takes matters into her own hands by luring the man into having another go then turning the tables on him and branding him (literally) as a rapist. It’s one of the most brutal scenes I’ve read in crime fiction and very confronting (not to mention seeing it depicted in the film version). And yet I will admit to feeling quite OK with Lisbeth’s actions upon reflection. I have to think this might be one of those instances where people’s views on whether or not what she did fits within the bounds of justice are determined by their gender? Or not?
What about you? Do you like crime fiction in which justice and the law don’t always follow the same path? Do have a favourite example? Or is justice being handled outside the law just one step away from total anarchy for you? Do you have an example of a book where it’s been done and you’ve disagreed with that?
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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week. Do join in the fun by reading the posts and/or contributing one of your own. You don’t have to write every week.