We have come to expect literary whodunnits from Baroness P D James and she rarely, if ever, disappoints. But the book is more of a novel than a murder mystery – what else shall we say when for over 100 pages James’ sets about establishing the psychographic profile of her protagonist and would-be victim Barrister Venetia Aldridge. Dalgliesh is really a distant character in this novel that features him far less than usual.
And the unveiling of a murderer who cannot be brought to the book is the writer’s tribute to the fallible system of human justice – the word ‘certain’, in the aptly worded title, stands not as an assurance of justice. To the contrary it is an admission that justice, administered by the human hand instead of the Divine, is an imperfect one.
This is vintage P D James – she makes us face reality as it is and is not one to molly coddle us with fairy tales. An electric beginning wherein she tells us that Barrister Venetia Aldridge, a successful and proficient criminal lawyer, will die in about a month makes it a promising start. And then she draws us in to the world of English Law and its ministrations.
Venetia reflects all the popular themes that James’ poses in her books – she is efficient and intelligent but so poor at building relationships (and she is smart enough to have adequate EQ as well but that is not how the cookie crumbles), she confronts incompetence and wishy-washy attitudes only for people to resent and use it as a stick to beat her with (lovely turn of phrase when James says that a woman, when she is powerful, is more powerful than a man) and she has an unsatisfactory and failed marriage (James often points out that the intelligent woman finds it more difficult to manage well the affairs of her heart than her less intelligent sisters). She even alienates her teenage daughter who never felt loved by her – at least James allows a final redemption by getting the daughter to understand her mother and seek closure of their troubled relationship.The final epitaph is telling when everyone can only say that she was a fine lawyer and not find anything remotely human to praise her memory.
But one doubts whether QC Venetia would have preferred to have it any other way – she was well aware of her choices and was strong enough to accept that one has to pay the price of acting in accordance to ones own free will. She would not have been one who would find it appealing if others pitied her situation. There is lovely allegory about, ‘a live Dog being more powerful than a dead Lion‘ that is a fitting description to change in the state of affairs as all the decisions Venetia opposed when she was alive, are easily endorsed post her demise.
And the book is so dominated by her persona that even I realized that this is possible one of the rare books by James where the crime takes a backseat and one is engrossed by the human drama. By the time we finally learn who killed her, we have been so satiated by the remaining drama in her life that we don’t quite care for the end.
James brings in wounded lives with her characteristic touch of ironic humour – we have an ageing lawyer who is yet to come to terms with ageing and the onset of the dreadful Alzheimer disease, an ambitious criminal lawyer and a bachelor who indulges his niece far beyond her due, an overworked lawyer who regrets having overstretched his resources to achieve a meaningless lifestyle and a trophy wife, a lady inspector who is resentful of her roots and has not yet reconciled with her past and finally an ineffectual stalker who worshipped Venetia’s success but her practically no life of his own. James enthralls us with the human drama and minces no words in describing their painful lives. Indeed it seems that she can only seem ‘human’ by appearing to be as skillful and unconcerned as one would be while performing an autopsy of the cadaver.
Thanks to her we can visit a world without stereotypes and platitudes, whether people are imperfect and the solutions they devise for the problems don’t quite turn out the way one expects. We learn to accept that and are better off to cope with reality than be cocooned into an idyllic world of fairy tales that don’t even impress the children nowadays as part of the bedtime routine.