Shifting Sands

The grand theme of P.D. James's work is man and his overwhelming sense of rootlessness, anxiety, and guilt in the knowledge of a crime unknown and a punishment outwardly denied in the post-Christian era, though inwardly anticipated. Especially in the last decade or so, James has moved far beyond Dame Agatha Christie, delving deeply into the psychological and theological realm of Dostoyevsky.

No longer a mystery writer but a novelist who so expertly employs the mystery genre that we hardly notice the intricacies of plot, the procedure of detection, and the uncovering of clues, James has achieved in A Certain Justice the rewards of more than 35 years of hard work.

The plot turns on the murder of a criminal lawyer known for her coldblooded approach to her craft and her reputation for getting obviously guilty criminals off the judicial hook. Venetia Aldridge is the most fully developed version of a character type James has evolved over the years: a career woman (typically unmarried, in this case divorced) who takes what purpose, passion, and meaning she is capable of feeling from her status as a leading member of the bar. Like Garry Ashe, the murderer she is defending, Aldridge is incapable of love—a recurring theme throughout the novel, underscoring the sense of isolation that many of the novel's characters feel. Ashe, as Aldridge well knows, is a "psychopath," a convenient term devised by...

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