P.D. James again: more than a killing

December 07, 1997|By Daniel J. Kornstein | Daniel J. Kornstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"A Certain Justice," by P.D. James. Knopf. 364 pages. $25.

P.D. James - an experienced, sophisticated and savvy author of several mysteries - has once again shown why well-written and well-constructed detective novels are so tremendously popular. "A Certain Justice" is a taut, suspenseful and deeply penetrating exploration of a psychopathic killer's mind.

James gives us another tale with Adam Dalgleish, her tough, thoughtful, poetry-writing police gumshoe from Scotland Yard. Set in London's fabled Inns of Court, the book is built around the curious, even eerie, murder of a prominent criminal lawyer - a female barrister - in her chambers.

Did the murderer take literally Shakespeare's memorable line in "Henry VI Part 2" to "kill all the lawyers"? As it turns out, there are several murders, not all of them of lawyers, and not all of them by the same culprit. In hallowed mystery-novel style, we do not even learn who the lawyer's killer is until the last page.

Much of the book's action takes place in the extraordinary and arcane world of legal London. Like her compatriot John Mortimer, James gives us vivid courtroom scenes in the Bailey, revealing meetings in barristers' chambers, odd conversations between lawyers and clients, and sobering glimpses of lawyers' personal lives. But there is no joking here. If the fascinating London legal world drawn by James reminds us at all of Rumpole, it is Rumpole in a bad mood, Rumpole without humor.

But P.D. James is not John Mortimer, nor is she P.G. Wodehouse. She is herself, with her own distinctive and impressive style of using language and plot to probe human personality. She writes gripping mystery books, not light comedy.

As with all good detective stories, here too the central, tension-filled puzzle is who killed someone, why, and how to stop it from happening again. But James, skilled pro that she is, goes far beyond that basic formula. On the first page, she previews her fundamental theme when she refers to the "illusion that the passions of men were susceptible to order and control." She delves into the character and background of the barrister-victim because "the clues to a murder lay always in the clues to a life." Such powerful and tantalizing generalizations are among her greatest literary assets.

Her other virtues include her astute development and portrayal of all major characters, her psychological insights that stimulate further thought and even introspection, and her well-crafted sentences (to wit: "A career which had begun so full of promise but which, like a stream with too feeble a spring, had spent itself with a sad inevitability among the sandy shallows of unrealized ambition").

More than anything else, however, "A Certain Justice" demonstrates the fine and rare art of good fiction. Yes, this is a detective novel, but it is first and foremost a novel. Because it is such a good book, "A Certain Justice" appeals to others (like myself) who are not regular or passionate readers of mysteries.

Women, for example, will be particularly drawn to it. Not only is the author female (and one of the best mystery writers of either gender), but her primary victim - her main character - is a strong, independent professional woman ("one of the country's most formidable cross-examiners"), as is one of the detectives assigned to the case. But don't worry; James is no wild feminist, just a highly articulate writer at the top of her form.

Both male and female lawyers will love "A Certain Justice." They will enjoy James' attempts to get inside the head of a trial lawyer, especially her perceptive comments on cross-examination, courtroom style, the anxiety of waiting for a verdict, and dealing with clients. They will identify with the barrister's working late and "over-driven, obsessional life." They will knowingly nod in professional - almost conspiratorial - agreement when one of James' characters says: "It's unwise to let the idea get around that you can't be bothered to sue. ... The litigious generally get left alone."

From a lawyer-reader's point of view, this book practically brings to life Shakespeare's famous line. "The mystery of her death," muses a police detective, "might lie in her professional life: a disappointed client; someone she had successfully prosecuted; an ex-prisoner with a grievance." People have lots of reasons to hate lawyers.

American lawyers who have survived the last two decades of shakeout and turmoil in their profession will especially appreciate one particular aspect of the author's prefatory note. After delivering the customary disclaimer about all her characters being wholly fictitious, James makes her wittiest, sharpest, and most acid-laced anti-lawyer remark. "Only the perfervid imagination of a crime novelist," she writes with irony, "could possibly conceive that a member of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple could harbor uncharitable thoughts towards a fellow member." James does not say if she believes in the Easter Bunny.

Daniel J. Kornstein has practiced law in New York for 23 years and is president of the Law and Humanities Institute. He is the author of three books: "The Music of the Laws," "Thinking Under Fire: Great Courtroom Lawyers and Their Impact on American History," and "Kill All the Lawyers: Shakespeare's Legal Appeal."

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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