Crime Fiction Alphabet: J is for Justice

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.

This entry was posted in Agatha Christie, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Leighton Gage, Stieg Larsson, Teresa Solana. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Crime Fiction Alphabet: J is for Justice

  1. Pingback: Crime Fiction Alphabet: J is for Justice | Reactions to Reading | Criminal Defense Data

  2. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for this great contribution to this week’s CFA Bernadette


  3. kathy durkin says:

    In Donna Leon’s superb series set in Venice, the criminals are usually those in high places–in the government, church, military, corporations, or have inherited wealth or are rich attorneys, accountants, etc. They are rarely arrested, tried or convicted. This may be a problem with U.S. readers who want “justice” for awful crimes, but Leon is telling of reality as she sees it. Commissario Guido Brunetti usually does figure out who committed the heinous acts, but rarely do they face justice. Fine with me, enjoy this series immensely.


  4. janebbooks says:

    I rather like this comment by Tana French on one of her Amazon book pages:

    The mystery is one of the most moral genres—it’s all about exploring right and wrong, finding truth, achieving justice……………but these are never black or white.


  5. Bill Selnes says:


    I understand the motivation to exact personal justice but, as a lawyer, it is my belief that “justice” is seldom achieved by individuals exacting revenge. Is justice achieved by a Biblical equality of “an eye for an eye”? Descending to the level of the wrongdoer is rarely more than temporarily satisfactory for the victim. Lisbeth has a warped personality with little conscience. Most often personal justice seeks to exact a greater hurt. I believe we do better as a society without persons undertaking personal justice.


  6. kathy durkin says:

    Not wanting to revisit the Lizbeth Salander issues once again, I do agree with Bernadette on this. I do think gender is a factor in one’s opinion. Salander’s character was abused, as was her mother for years; her mother was beaten into a terrible state. Numerous complaints were made to social services, to the police, etc. No one did anything to intervene and protect them. Then she was victimized horrifically in a hospital by supposed “health care professionals,” to the point where real humans would totally withdraw, become catatonic, or otherwise become totally nonfunctional. That Lizbeth was angry and wanted revenge is understandable, and healthier than turning it on herself.
    Then she was abused by another authority figure who had a lot of control over her life, including finances. She was abused horribly once again. That she took revenge, was creative about it and taped it to use to protect herself was also understandable. Women cheer on this section of the film at film showings, by the way. I would hope that in reality there are rape crisis centers, victims’ services and advocates, attorneys and organizations which assist women, all over the world, and that abusers serve hard time. But there are so many countries where domestic violence and sexual abuse of women is not taken seriously, not prosecuted, etc. Then what?


  7. kathy durkin says:

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to rewrite this again. I hope this is the last time. One of the good things with the Millenium series is that in the third volume, there is justice for Salander, at least a vindication with two abusers, and that was because she had some good people on her side, including several strong, competent, brilliant women.


  8. @Bill it’s interesting to hear from a lawyer, I’m sure you’re not alone in thinking along those lines. And in theory I agree with you, but I suspect that’s because I have never personally been put to the test. I haven’t had first hand experience of the system failing me so I haven’t had to consider seriously whether or not to extract personal vengeance. But I often think about cases that have failed people. A well-known one here in Adelaide is the case of a woman whose husband was killed while cycling along the road minding his own business, the driver who hit him was drunk at the time and should have been convicted of manslaughter but he was not. The reason? He is a well-known lawyer here and he used his knowledge of the law and his powerful society connections to get off (this included not being tested for alcohol level in his blood until 72 hours after the incident even though the law demanded he be tested immediately and there being multiple witness statements from bar staff etc that the man was clearly drunk when he got behind the wheel of his car a few minutes before the accident). It is well known that’s what happened – it’s what might be termed an open secret here in town – one of those examples that people turn to when arguments about the collapse of the legal system come up (as they do) – and one which a couple of lawyers I know get very quiet about when it is discussed. If that had been my husband or my son or my father who was killed so brazenly and for whom there has been not an ounce of justice or restitution or punishment or anything I’m just not sure what I might have been tempted to do…but I do know that I would have at least considered extracting some kind of justice on my own terms given that the so-called justice system completely failed.

    @Kathy, no need to apologise, that’s what the comments are for. I must say I agree with you too about what has led Lisbeth to being the way she is. All of her experience would have led her to conclude that there was no hope of her being protected or avenged by ‘the system’ as it was the system which had allowed her to be abused, repeatedly. I can understand why she took things into her own hands in such circumstances. The alternative for her would have been to allow herself to continue to be abused.

    I think Jane is right – these issues are never black or white – which is why they are so though provoking and make for interesting reading


  9. kathy durkin says:

    I do think there was a vestige of mental health in Lizbeth Salander or she would have ended up as a totally nonfunctional person, incapable of having a whole self or of taking care of herself, of becoming a computer genius, paying her bills, relating to anyone or doing anything. She did survive the worst abuses, and was able to think through how to get justice from the guardian and vindicating herself. I wish Blomkvist and his sister had helped her earlier, that there would have been a nonviolent resolution earlier, but then there would have been no Millennium trilogy. So such was the stuff of a terrific three volumes.
    We hope that all abused women are heard and aided throughout the world, but know that is very sadly not the case in many countries. So what the women do about that? I have no judgment about that.


  10. kathy durkin says:

    Again, I say, if there rape crisis centers, victims’ services, counselors, attorneys, battered women’s shelters everywhere for abused women, social services–and the criminal justice systems took their complaints seriously, and something was done–then I’d have a different opinion.
    In the U.S., due to sweeping budget cuts, shelters for battered women and children and rape crisis centers are being closed down or cut way back in many states.
    What happens now I shudder to think.


  11. I am a criminal solicitor so my view on justice is coming from that perspective – but I think that what a lot of people expect from the legal system is unrealistic. If a person’s or community’s idea of justice if that guilty people get found guilty and innocent people get found innocent then everyone is being a bit niive and unrealisitic – how can that ever ben achieved? It can’t. When two people are arguing two opposing version of events (for example, in a sex assault case) and they are the only two peopel who were there – how can you ever really know who is telling the truth? A juror might beleive something beyond a reasonable doubt – but that still doesn’t mean it happened/didn’t happen.

    So for me justice (in the legal system) is about ensuring a fair process rather than the true outcome (which is impossible every single time). By ensuring a fair process you bring justice to the legal system by giving both parties their opporunity to put their case forward fairly.

    So in your example (and I wasn’t at the trial obviously so please bear that in mind) for all we know (assuming no one else was at the trial) maybe there was a fair trial (let’s face it, we can’t trust whats in the papers or news) and although the outcome sounds not ideal at all, if the process is fair that is where justice lies. The Crown have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Obviously I am only talking about criminal trials in that little post – not other aspects of the legal system, but I think the same thing applies across the board. And I am not trying to say that the legal system does ensure a fair process as it stands (far from it). But I do believe that so long as people expect justice to be ‘guilt people being found guilty and innocent people being found guilty’ then no one will ever be satisfied no matter what.

    Sorry about that post – please feel free to ignore. I am just feeling touchy at the moment because I just finished a 3 weeks trial and my jury are out considering their verdict.


  12. OMG – I am such a ranter – sorry! Please blame stress for that previous post. I didn’t even say anything about the books!

    I do enjoy good crime fiction. My favourites are Agatha Christie and Kerry Greenwood though which probably gives you an idea of the kind of crime fiction I like reading.


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  14. @Becky please don’t feel the need to apologise for ‘ranting’ – it was a very polite rant after all and I enjoy looking at things from other people’s perspectives. Part of the problem with things the way they are today is that it’s a bit too easy to only ever hear voices/opinions that are the same as your own so you’re never forced to consider different points of view. I was a debater in my school and university days so I like ‘arguments’ when they are polite and just putting across different points of view. I’d hate to think I was unopen to changing my opinion about something.

    As for that particular case I mentioned part of the problem is that he never went to trial for manslaughter and there is a general belief it was because he used the system to his advantage. For example even though there was an eye witness who had seen the car (and got the registration number) knock the man off his bike the lawyer chap managed to argue that there was no evidence he was driving the car at the time – it appeared to most of us that all he wanted was for enough time to elapse before his blood was tested for alcohol so that he wouldn’t give a reading – which he got. Then when other witnesses came forward to say they had seen him get into the car and others gave statements about his alcohol consumption it was all a bit moot as there was no hard evidence he had still been over the limit when he hit the cyclist. I guess I look at that and think if it had been me (without the knowledge and connections) I’d have been breath and blood tested on the spot and that would have been that. I’ll admit though that this case gets talked about precisely because it is out of the ordinary – and was more down to an individual abusing his knowledge and position – something that can happen anywhere – I’m sure in most instances the law deals with things appropriately. I just like to ponder what I would do if I were in one of the minority circumstances where it didn’t happen…would I be able to let things be or would I be out to seek my own version of justice?


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