P. D. James – “A Certain Justice”

17 Sep

GENRE: Mystery
PUBLISHED: Ballantine Books, 1998

From: The Washington Post Book World
“Venetia Aldridge is a criminal lawyer of large talents and small personal charms, working at a venerable London firm … As she tries to save a young lower-class tough who is accused of murdering his prostitute aunt, we learn that she is in a position to ruin a number of professional lives, and is of precisely the temperament to do it … [Then] the lawyer is murdered – discovered in her locked chambers in a particularly gruesome tableau … Dalgliesh … moves with grace and acumen through the blood-soaked crime scene, guiding his more volatile staff through the interviews that unweave the tangled web of multiple deceit and mixed motive.”

A Certain Justice is one of P. D. James’s novels with detective Dalgliesh, although he plays a rather small role in this one. A lot of time is spent with other characters: with Venetia Aldridge who is the focus of the first part of the book (the book is divided into four parts); with a young man accused of murdering his aunt (Ashe); and with Dalgliesh’s assistant Kate Miskin. Dalgliesh makes his first appearance in the second part of the novel, after Venetia Aldridge is discovered dead and the investigation starts.

This investigation moves into the background from time to time as other things get more room. First, as stated, the novel begins with Venetia Aldridge. The focus is on her: you get to know her work and her everyday life (although one can argue that it is one and the same for her) – and with that some motives and suspects for her murder are introduced. She is a fascinating woman, and with such an interesting character, this novel could easily have been a novel about the world of lawyers and the ethical questions they face. Instead, the reader knows up from the start that Venetia will die:

“When, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 11 September, Venetia Aldridge stood up to cross-examine the prosecution’s chief witness in the case Regina v. Ashe, she had four weeks, four hours and fifty minutes left of life.” (p.3)

After Venetia’s murder, the questions about justice shift into the background, but come into play again at the end of the book.

Second, this book could also be a novel about childhood – what a difficult childhood could do to a person and how a person can deal with it. Again, there is Venetia Aldridge. But there is also Ashe, the young man defended by her, Dalgliesh’s assistant Kate, and Venetia’s own daughter Octavia. Every one of them had a hard childhood and they deal differently with the problems connected to their childhood. The reader gets to know about this through, sometimes rather long, flashbacks and the thoughts of the characters.

These two themes add extra layers to the main story about a murder investigation. But the always detailed descriptions of every character in the novel and his / her life sometimes overwhelm this story and let the novel seem more like a character study. There are long passages of telling – about a character, about his life, about his thoughts. For the most part, these characters sketches are interesting and written skillfully, although some come off as a bit stereotypical. But when you know, after being introduced to another new character, that now some pages of background about this character’s life will follow, it gets repetitive and kind of boring. I skipped some of these passages, even though this is a detective novel and I understand that it is important to put every character on equal ground. Not every character introduced is really a possible suspect in the murder and therefore needs a detailed background. The same it true for locations: not every location needs a detailed description.

A Certain Justice is a well written novel. Due to its detailed descriptions, it is also a slow-paced novel but nevertheless fast to read. It raises questions about the idea of justice and about childhood. With this shift of focus, A Certain Justice offers more than other detective novels, but at the same time this shift of focus takes away from the main point of a detective novel: the investigation of the crime. I say this just to make clear that someone who expects to read a pure detective novel may be disappointed with the time spent on other things in this book. But if someone is willing to give it a try, he or she might be tempted to think about the idea of justice after finishing it.

Would I recommend this novel? Probably yes.

Would I read this novel again? No.

Grade: 3,5 / 5


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