Law or Justice? What Do They Mean to Mystery Writers?

by Janis Patterson

One of the reason mysteries are so popular, according to some, is that they give the reader satisfaction by putting the world in order, rectifying chaos and ensuring law and justice prevail. That may be partially true. Why partially?

Because law and justice do not mean the same thing. In theory they should, but because laws are controlled by humans and justice is a cosmic concept, their applications and results often vary widely. For example, take the case of a sadistic mass murderer who tortured several people to a prolonged and agonizing death. He is caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced, either to death or to life in prison. The law has been satisfied, but it hardly seems justice that a man who gleefully and deliberately caused such unspeakable fear, pain and death to many should either die on a clean operating table with an injection that puts him peacefully to sleep or lives an admittedly restricted life in prison, but one with food, shelter, TV, books, schooling, visits from friends and loved ones… Justice? Would it not be truer to the principle of justice for him to undergo what he made others suffer?

Now I am not debating the pros/cons/desirability/arguments for or against capital punishment. That is just an extreme example of the difference between what some people see as the rule of law and what others perceive as justice. The same principles could be applied to the theft of an apple pie.

So how what can mystery writers take from this? In the classic A. Conan Doyle series about Sherlock Holmes I seem to remember several instances where Sherlock bent or even ignored the letter of the law in the interests of justice. So, if memory serves, did Ellery Queen. Such an attitude can also be found in writers of every era, though I will admit they are rare.

There are those who say that justice is an unattainable goal, and that what the law metes out is right and proper and makes us human instead of beasts. There are some who say making the punishment fit the crime is justice. Personally, I lean a little bit both ways – and that’s not easy! – but my personal feelings aren’t the subject of this blog.

There was a time when a hungry person stole a loaf of bread they were hung or transported to the Antipodes. Now a vicious mass murderer can be incarcerated and well taken care of for life. Two extremes, admittedly, but on often our civilization and our perception of right and wrong are defined by extremes.

It is said that it is neither politicians nor historians who create history – it is the balladeers, the poets, the tellers of stories. As writers we are in control of every story we write. Each story is a world we create and good, bad or indifferent we decide what happens. That is an awesome responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly.

I can’t tell you what is right or dictate what you write, but when your sleuth/policeman/protagonist decides to follow the letter of the law with no regard for heinousness of the crime, or said sleuth decides to ignore the law and proceed with his understanding of justice, be careful. What you write may someday influence our guideline for society.

5 thoughts on “Law or Justice? What Do They Mean to Mystery Writers?

  1. Not forgetting the advances of DNA, occasionally now, freeing the convicted. I believe in capital punishment, most of the time, except when it’s ordered mistakenly, and how is a human to know for sure? The big trouble is, an execution is pretty well permanent. No redoes. You’ve got us thinking again.

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  2. This is a great post on how the thinking/judgement of the author and the main character could conflict, depending on the story and circumstances.

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  3. Good discussion, Janis. I can recall instances in coming to the end of a story when I see the two paths laid out clearly–an extralegal decision by the police/investigator to make a choice that violates the letter of the law but seems to uphold a sense of justice. It’s the proverbial slippery slope, and I resist the pull. Nevertheless, it’s important that we acknowledge those conflicts and challenges for what they can tell us about our own system of law and justice.

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