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.

Setting Chaos Right

by Janis Patterson

Admittedly, there is something strange about those who spend a great deal of their time in thinking up ways to do away with another of their fellow beings. Someone once wrote that a person who repeatedly tries to devise a way of killing another is either a psychopath or a mystery writer, and that sometimes the line between them blurs. I resent that. I spend a great deal of time finding ways to eradicate some poor soul, but I don’t feel like a psychopath. At least, not most of the time.

So why do I do it? Why do any of us do it?

Aside from the fact I’m much too afraid of getting caught to even think of trying anything for real, I believe we do it because as writers and as readers we fans of murder have a very strict sense of honor and decency and justice.

Whether we’re plotting the demise of a nosy next door neighbor or creating a scheme to eradicate the populace of a distant planet, we are creating mayhem and chaos. Murder is against the natural order of things – it is unnatural, and the unnatural is disturbing to us. However – if we create it ourselves as writers, we control it. We know from the beginning that however bad things get, we can set it right and good will triumph again.

Now I can hear some of you muttering that there are many books where the killer is not punished, that he walks away unscathed. Yes, of course there are, but in the traditional mystery framework (even if it is set on a distant planet many eons in the future or the past) we know that the bad will be punished and order restored. Even if the law is not served, justice will be, and the two are not always the same thing. Sometimes a murder can be a good thing, and to punish the killer would be unfair. As was written in Texas law until not too many years ago, there are some folks who just need killing!

By contrast, real life is messy. People are murdered and the perpetrator is never caught, and sometimes even if he is he isn’t convicted. There is no guaranteed happy/good/righteous ending, and sometimes the uncertainty of that ambiguity is unbearable. I think people turn to mysteries both as readers and as writers because they need the framework of justice guaranteed to be triumphant. I know I do.

In the worlds we create horrible things happen, yes, but in the end right and justice prevail. The murderer is going to be stopped some way. Our senses of balance and security and rightness are restored. All is well.

Would it could be that way in real life.