Justice is debated every time the morning newspaper is opened—or flipped on the favored tablet. We each have slightly different interpretations of the meaning. Is the death penalty just or is it only State-approved murder? How should the guilty be punished? Oddly enough, the discussion on justice is rarely concluded with a mention of the law pertaining to the crime.
We begin worrying over the meaning very early in life, usually when we are first accused of something we didn’t do or see someone get away with breaking a rule we believed inviolate. Not that most of us favor pitchfork rule, but I think we often conclude that justice does not always equate to the written or common law. And that is one reason we read mysteries.
When characters started auditioning for my first medieval mystery, Wine of Violence, I was quite surprised to see a short, serious-looking young prioress standing in line. Not a likely choice, I thought, because my religious background is neither Catholic nor conventionally defined. However, she was pretty insistent that she would do far better in a mystery than a secular sleuth. In the end, she won me over.
Her primary argument was that the books were medievals and people then pretty much believed in a perfect God whose justice was flawless as well. Although humans are imperfect, we are still made in God’s image, she said, and therefore must strive to exercise our better nature.
As I listened, I realized that our longing for justice matches this. When a person commits a crime, the punishment should not be founded in the less than ideal emotions of revenge, hate, anger or even grief. It should be commensurate with the specific nature of the offense. Thus Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas look to Brother Cadfael’s philosophy and strive to render justice as it ought to be, not necessarily what we want it to be in the heat of the moment.
There really is no way to define perfect justice. There will always be the exception to the best written law. But, being human, we cannot trust ourselves to always be fair, objective, and right. We need wise laws to give us boundaries and guidance. But in mysteries we can play with ideas, engender debate, and experiment without hurting anyone—except with fictional wounds.