Why we need books about justice
February 13, 2014
The other day in an interview I had to answer some questions about justice.
It made sense for the interviewer to ask me about the subject because I write legal thrillers, and legal thrillers should have to do with justice.
Right. They should. But it’s not an easy subject to handle in an interview or in a novel.
I have practiced law for many years.
That job will change the way a person views the high-falutin’ concept of abstract justice because when one is immersed in a particular case, his thoughts are on the interests of his client, how to navigate the law as it exists in a provincial place and time.
The law is nothing but a reflection of the customs and morals a society approves at a snapshot in its history. What the law favors in one decade, it may abhor in the next.
Take slavery for instance.
Until the end of the Civil War in the United States, the law did not prohibit that heinous institution.
Did that make slavery “just”?
Of course not. But it was legal.
This is where the going gets tough in any theoretical discussion of justice. In hindsight, Americans look back at their history and shake their heads that their forefathers allowed slavery to exist for so many years.
Hindsight is one thing.
But what about the present injustices to which we are blind?
If a person thinks there are none, he is only fooling himself.
Enter the novelist.
An author is not bound as tightly to the mores of his society as is the law.
He is fettered only by his imagination, a beautifully human thing that possesses the power to jump out of the present moment and explore issues from a different perspective. Perhaps he uses sarcasm to have a character make a point about fairness. Perhaps he uses humor. Perhaps he extends the present moment to its logical conclusion fifty years in the future.
What guides an author in her quest?
Now we are back to her innate sense of fairness, which is another way, a better way, of describing justice.
If the characters in her book do what they feel is right, even if their actions conflict with what the law of the time decrees, then the author has provided an insight no court case can bring.
In a case tried in court, a lawyer is the prisoner of the law. Even if he persuades a jury to make the right decision on behalf of his client, a decision rooted in fairness, the courts will not abide by the decision if it does not comport with the law. The courts can only follow the law as it exists. They cannot set it aside for an abstraction.
So why do we need books about justice?
We need them because they nudge us toward a higher good. By approaching our society sideways, they demonstrate our blind spots and motivate us to reconsider where we are and where we are going.
It doesn’t matter if a book is a legal thriller, a work of literary fiction, a romance or science fiction. If an author does her job right, she will open the curtains that block our view and lead us into a new reality.