"Murderers do not usually give their victims notice." This provocative statement begins P.D. James' new mystery, "A Certain Justice," and I might add that mystery writers don't usually give much notice to their readers either. Most police procedurals begin after the crime has taken place, and the victim becomes known to us only in the course of the investigation, through interviews with family and colleagues and via the contents of dresser drawers. The victim is a blank at the center of the story that gets gradually filled in, for it is a truism of the murder mystery genre that only by understanding the life can one discover who might have hoped to end it.
James, however, one of the top two or three mystery writers of our time, is skilled enough to get away with breaking the rules. One of the ancillary pleasures of reading her books is watching how she handles the conventions of the genre, faithfully observing some and fooling around with others. This time she introduces the potential murder victim, a criminal lawyer named Venetia Aldridge, by informing us that she had "four weeks, four hours, and fifty minutes left of life." We then spend the better part of 100 pages with Venetia, learning first-hand how many people hated her and why.
At the time of her death, Aldridge, a brilliant defense lawyer, has just helped get off Garry Ashe, a young man accused of the brutal murder of his aunt. She was a middle-aged prostitute who liked Ashe to photograph her with her clients, and it seems fairly clear that Ashe, a frighteningly canny and apparently amoral guy, was guilty as charged. It's hard to think he won't be mixed up in Venetia's murder too, especially after he becomes engaged to her unhappy 18-year-old daughter, who stands to inherit a bundle when her mother dies. There are lots of other potential suspects, however -- the ambitious colleague competing with Venetia to become Head of Chambers; the senior clerk Venetia wants to fire; the young lawyer whose career she threatens to destroy. James spends the first section of the novel neatly lining them up, which, while interesting enough, is the least compelling part of the book.
Once Aldridge is actually dead however, the story leaps to life. The familiar (to James readers) investigative team is an appealing mixture, composed of Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, who pulled herself up from an unhappy childhood in the London projects; Detective Inspector Piers Tarrant, who studied theology at Oxford; and of course Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, tough, smart and sensitive -- good qualities for a poet as well as a policeman, and AD (as his staff calls him) is both.
As the investigation progresses, the plot turns are ingenious, and James does a terrific job of using the information she gives us in unexpected ways. Toward the end of the book she flirts with one of the great transgressions of the mystery genre, hinting she might leave the crime unsolved. By the last 50 pages I was reading furiously, almost as anxious to see how she would handle this structural issue as to find out who the murderer was. I'm happy to report I was in no way disappointed.