Study Guide

A Certain Justice

by P. D. James

A Certain Justice Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The novels of P. D. James are always as much concerned with the mysteries of human existence as with the mysteries that her detectives are called upon to solve. In Original Sin (1996), for example, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, who is the protagonist in most of James’s books, finds that dark deeds are rooted in the fact that all human beings are fallen creatures. In A Certain Justice, James again points out how the imperfections of the most respectable people can make their undoing almost inevitable. People who believe that they are highly principled can be so preoccupied with themselves that they are blind to the feelings of others. When this insensitivity either threatens the well-being of another or is perceived as having caused a real tragedy, the result can be murder. Ironically, it then takes someone as sensitive as Dalgliesh, James’s poetic detective, to understand human motivations in a way that the victim could not do and, thus, to solve the crime.

In most murder mysteries, the author lays a good deal of groundwork before the crime takes place. While the setting is established and the characters are described, the reader is kept in uncertainty as to who is to be the victim. Then, of course, the source of suspense alters, and the book becomes an actual “whodunit.” A Certain Justice is very different. In the third sentence of the novel, James lets her readers know that Venetia Aldridge has only a little more than four weeks left to live. However, as the scene proceeds, it becomes evident that Aldridge is not aware that anyone hates her enough to murder her. True, she is a defense attorney, and some of the people whose freedom she obtains may well be guilty, but she cannot see that possibility as her fault. Instead, she thinks of it, on the few occasions when it crosses her mind, as a by-product of a legal system that leans over backward to protect the innocent. When Aldridge wins her case, securing the release of a young man accused of murdering his aunt in a particularly brutal manner, she does not question the rightness of the outcome. Instead, she regards her triumph as just one more proof of her skill. Like the protagonist of a tragedy, she is thus shown at a moment of seeming invincibility. In a sense, Aldridge is an innocent, whose unknowing will prove to be her undoing.

The extent of Aldridge’s egotism and obtuseness, which will combine to destroy her, is the subject of the entire first section of A Certain Justice. In the weeks before her death, Aldridge seems determined to alienate as many people as possible. There is Drysdale Laud, for example, who, for many years, has looked forward to taking over as head of Chambers when Hubert St. John Langton retires but who now finds Aldridge demanding the post. Aldridge also makes it clear that, when she is in charge, there will be no room in Chambers for the attractive, bright, young lawyer Catherine Beddington, against whom the jealous Aldridge has waged a war of intimidation, rendering Beddington ineffectual whenever the older woman is present. Arguing the need to modernize an antiquated system, Aldridge also intends to turn out Henry Naughton, the senior clerk, along with his friend Valerie Caldwell, who had hoped for a promotion but knows that Aldridge has no time for her. When her brother was arrested, Caldwell had begged for help from the accomplished defense attorney, but, cold and insensitive as usual, Aldridge refused to intervene. As a result, Caldwell’s brother went to prison, and his mother sank even deeper into her deep depression.

Simon Costello is another member of Chambers who has reason to fear Aldridge, for she is threatening to expose some irregularities in one of his earlier cases. Costello’s wife, Lois, is understandably furious about the possibility of his being expelled from Chambers and from the profession. Lois makes it clear, both to her husband and to the uncle who dotes on her, Desmond Ulrick, another member of Chambers, that somehow Aldridge must be eliminated.

Aldridge’s personal life, too, is less than tranquil. When her lover, Mark Rawlstone, breaks off their affair, Aldridge threatens to make trouble, and Rawlstone, who is a member of Parliament, is concerned not only for his political career but also for his marriage. Although his wife Lucy knows about the affair, she is not aware of the fact that very recently, Aldridge, when she found herself pregnant, had an abortion. Mark, of course, was the father. If Aldridge spitefully informs Lucy about this matter, as she is threatening to do, the consequences could be disastrous because, after both Mark and Lucy had given up hope of having a child, Lucy, to their delight, is now pregnant. Mark does not want his wife to be subjected to any...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)