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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1949

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,...

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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 emotional stress, nor does he want her to find out about Aldridge’s pregnancy and its termination. As a fierce opponent of abortion, Lucy might well leave him, thus depriving her husband of the child he so desires and undoubtedly endangering his political career.

Even Aldridge’s own child, her teenage daughter Octavia, has a motive for killing her mother. Octavia feels that Aldridge has always put her career ahead of her daughter, depositing her, for example, in boarding schools instead of giving her the love she craved. Octavia’s resentment has intensified since she began seeing Garry Ashe, the defendant in the murder trial with which the book opens. Both Octavia and Ashe are only too aware of the fact that, if her mother died, Octavia, as Aldridge’s only child, would inherit a great deal of money. Sadly, to everyone but the lovesick Octavia, it is obvious that Ashe’s proposal of marriage is prompted by his desire for her wealth rather than by any real affection for her.

If Aldridge had ever speculated on how her continuing existence would impact the lives of these people, she might have been a little more careful about what she said to them. At the very least, she might have ventured into Chambers only in the daytime, when there were a number of people present. However, Aldridge never expects anyone to strike back, either as a response to her threats or as a result of her past activities. It is Dalgliesh and his two subordinates, Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant, who find out how much harm Aldridge has done in her life, including her responsibility for the tragedy that left the office cleaner Janet Carpenter alone and bitter. Considering how masterfully Aldridge handles cause and effect in the courtroom, it is amazing that she is so unaware of its applications in everyday life.

Despite its unconventional beginning, A Certain Justice is, in most respects, patterned like the classical British mystery on which James’s books are modeled. One-fourth of the way through the book, the murder is committed, and then the detectives take charge. Their investigations uncover a great deal about the lives of everyone connected with Aldridge, but, eventually, they find out who killed her as well as who committed a second murder obviously connected with the first. In the last section of the novel, however, James abandons the traditional mystery format for sheer suspense. In “The Reed Beds,” Ashe takes Octavia to a remote area of Suffolk, where he will surely kill her if someone does not arrive in time to save her. Unfortunately, this episode results in still another killing, for which the dead Aldridge must bear some responsibility since it was she who arranged for Ashe’s release; fortunately, however, Octavia is saved.

Setting is always important in the novels of P. D. James, and one cannot deny that the reed beds, so isolated and so unapproachable, provide a strikingly dramatic atmosphere for that part of the novel. However, after Octavia is rescued, James takes Dalgliesh back to Chambers, the setting that dominates the novel. Though not as remote as the castle inThe Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) or as restrictive as the medical institutions where the suspects are housed in Shroud for a Nightingale(1971) and The Black Tower (1975), Chambers does function much like the country house settings in the novels of James’s predecessors. Such settings were used to limit the number of suspects and yet permit all sorts of comings and goings. Here, there are only a few people who could have had access to Chambers and, thus, been able to approach Aldridge in her office, but, as in the older mysteries, that small circle has more than its quota of entanglements and rivalries.

However, unlike the country house novelists, James also uses her setting for metaphorical purposes. Like Innocent House in Original Sin, the home of a venerable press, the Pawlet Court offices are more than an interesting and useful location for the story. In both novels, the setting represents an institution to which people have devoted their lives, an institution that is seen as being threatened by the machinations of those who have no respect for established values. Aldridge’s declared intention of making Chambers cost-efficient, without any regard for the damage she may do to human lives, represents her thoroughly modern dedication to profit and power, which clearly parallels her amoral attitude toward her own legal practice.

It is ironic that Aldridge does not see the parallel between her own defiance of tradition and Octavia’s refusal to fulfill her mother’s rather conventional ambitions for her daughter, ambitions which, if misguided, do, nevertheless, prove that Aldridge does love Octavia. It is significant that the only twinges of guilt Aldridge ever feels about anyone or anything are aroused by Octavia’s accusations of neglect. It is also ironic that it is this sense of guilt, combined with her real concern for Octavia, that takes Aldridge to Chambers that fatal night and makes her murder possible.

In her novels, James combines a respect for tradition with a willingness to entertain new ideas. She is as careful as mystery writer Agatha Christie in structuring her plots and is clearly aware of the value of setting. However, she has a very contemporary interest in psychology. James reveals her characters in all their complexity: Langton and Naughton, for example, facing old age and its ills; Rawlstone and Costello, fearful that they must pay the price of past misdeeds; and Ashe, whom James admittedly created because of her curiosity about how a psychopath’s mind works.

Thematically, too, James combines the traditional and the contemporary. Through her alter ego Dalgliesh, she makes it obvious that she sees a clear distinction between good and evil, and her own life story offers proof of her belief in duty and in the power of love. However, she is only too aware that, even for a believer, life is filled with mystery. This is nowhere more evident than at the end of the novel, when, though a couple of killers are dead, Dalgliesh accepts the fact that one murderer cannot be touched by the law. Perhaps he has already been punished enough. In any case, both James and Dalgliesh must accept the fact that, in this world, there is no “certain” justice but merely the imperfect attempts of imperfect human beings to arrive at a certain degree of right.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, October 15, 1997, p. 363.

Boston Globe. November 16, 1997, p. L1.

Library Journal. CXXII, November 1, 1997, p. 120.

Maclean’s. CX, December 1, 1997, p. 76.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, December 7, 1997, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 20, 1997, p. 58.

San Francisco Chronicle. November 30, 1997, p. S3.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 3, 1997, p. 23.

The Wall Street Journal. December 9, 1997, p. A20.

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