Defining Justice in a Fictional World
Article by: Kylie Fox
The term “justice” is one of the most difficult to define. A few weeks ago, I attended a panel made up of three judges from various courts and each of them had difficulty in providing a definition. Why? Because it is such a subjective term.
Justice means very different things to different people. In some countries, for example, it is considered just for the hand of a thief to be severed. Here, we would consider that to be barbaric – certainly not just.
To the judge, justice can only be served within the confines of a set of laws and they must take into account the crime, the probability of rehabilitation and the impact on the victim. They must find a fair and reasonable punishment, thus defining justice.
To the criminal waiting in the docks, who no doubt can justify his actions, at least to himself, any sentence, any punishment, will likely seem unjust.
To the victim, or the family of a victim, perhaps there is nothing that would feel like justice has been served. Consider the parents of a murdered child. One could assume that nothing short of the return of their child and the perpetrator rotting in hell, could seem like a just outcome.
We are often outraged at the sentences received by criminals – how can a life be worth ten years in jail? Others closer to the perpetrator will cry – but it was one stupid mistake!
In the real world, there are too many circumstances, too many variables, for justice to become a blanket term.
Equally, justice must not only be served but be seen to be served.
That adage holds true in crime fiction too – we, as the readers, expect to see some kind of justice for the crimes committed. This kind of justice doesn’t necessarily have to follow any real-world rules, so long as we are provided with some sense of closure.
In a court-based story, like those of John Grisham, we do expect that the perpetrators of the crime will be tried, convicted and receive exceptionally long sentences. We need for the police to have already done the groundwork for the case, but equally we expect the lawyers to find that smoking gun, right in the nick of time, or to push for a confession from a broken defendant on the stand. Only then can the reader be satisfied that justice has been served.
In many detective, private eye and police procedurals, we don’t need to follow the crime as far as the court case. We don’t need to know the sentence. We are satisfied with our protagonist surviving to solve another case – and of course, they must always get their man. Justice is seen to be served the second the police slap the handcuffs on.
For forensic-styled protagonists like those of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs – we still expect them to get their man just not with the traditional footwork of a detective, but clever lab work. Oh, and only after their own lives have been threatened.
Jeff Lindsay brings us a whole other kind of justice – justice Dexter-style. And it’s every bit as satisfying –sometimes even more so – than the legal counterparts. Dexter’s particular brand of justice is to murder the perpetrators of some of the more vicious crimes, dispose of their bodies and continue working as a blood spatter analyst for the police department. He’s one of the good guys. He just does very bad things. But still, we cheer him on, pray he doesn’t get caught and feel well and truly satisfied that justice has been served when the dismembered remains of his latest bad-guy victim are tossed into the ocean.
Justice, in crime fiction, is every bit as varied and subjective as justice in the real world. I guess the only rule of justice is that it must be seen to be done and it must, at least somewhat, satisfy the parties involved. In the case of fiction, those parties are the reader.
What do you see as the most satisfying endings to crime fiction novels? Equally, what are some that have left you feeling ripped off; that haven’t seen justice served?