Judges are a crucial part of the justice system. They have the very difficult task of presiding over trials, sometimes ugly trials, and are expected to remain impartial, relying on the evidence, the law, and precedent to do their jobs. Personal bias is not supposed to influence their rulings.
But of course, judges are human. They interpret matters one way or another. They like some lawyers better than others. They have preferences when it comes to how their sessions are run. And they have faults, just like the rest of us. Most of them work hard to do the best job they can, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. They can be, though, very interesting characters in crime fiction. One post isn’t enough to cover this topic thoroughly, but here are a few examples.
Robert Van Gulik’s protagonist is Dee Jen-djieh (Judge Dee), a Tang Dynasty (618-806 CE) Magistrate for the district of Lan-Fang, on China’s northwestern border. Dee’s job is to administer justice, and some of his punishments are harsh, or worse, by our current Western standards. But Dee does have a sense of compassion, and he considers things like motive and other factors when he pronounces sentence. He is also a clever person and finds inventive ways to get to the truth about the cases he handles.
One of Margaret Maron’s series features Judge Deborah Knott, who lives and works in North Carolina. She is the daughter of a moonshine peddler/bootlegger, but she chose to work on the other side of the law. She’s a district judge, so her cases take her to different parts of the state. This gives Maron the opportunity to explore North Carolina’s diversity. The novels do focus on the mysteries at hand, but they also frequently involve members of Knott’s family (she has eleven siblings and plenty of other relatives). And Maron uses the novels to address real-life issues (like racism, poverty, and the like) that impact the way justice is or isn’t served.
In Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob, we meet Robert Isom ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs. He’s earned that nickname because of the harsh sentences that he metes out. In fact, he usually assigns the stiffest penalty the law allows. This, of course, means that he’s made his share of enemies among the people he sentences. He also has a notorious reputation with women and has given more than one a good reason to resent him. And that’s to say nothing of his wife, who knows the kind of man he his. But Gibbs has a lot of clout, and he uses it to his advantage. One day, an alligator is found on his property. The police are called in, and the animal is killed. Gibbs wants as little as possible to be made of the incident, but the police, in the form of Gary Hammond, suspect the alligator may have been put on Gibbs’ property deliberately. Then one night, shots are fired into the judge’s home. Now it seems clear that someone is trying to kill him. Hammond works to find out who the would-be killer is before Gibbs is actually murdered. And it’s not going to be easy, because there are quite a few people who’d like to be rid of Gibbs.
Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday introduces readers to Justice Harish Shinde and his law clerk, Anant. The Judge has been invited to spend two weeks at the home of his friend, Shikhar Pant, who has a home in Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, and he and Anent are looking forward to taking a break from the Delhi heat. Pant has also invited several other house guests, including his cousin, Kailish Pant. One afternoon, Kailish is found stabbed in the library. The police are notified, and Inspector Patel takes charge of the investigation. He soon settles on a suspect, but the Judge isn’t so sure that Patel has the right person. And there is most definitely more than one possibility in this case. So, the Judge and Anant start asking questions to get to the truth about this murder. And, because of the Judge’s status, Patel doesn’t react to their involvement in the same way he might if the Judge were a ‘regular’ person.
Nicole Watson’s The Boundary begins with a hearing. Justice Bruce Brosnan is about to rule on whether or not the Corrowa people have the right to claim Brisband’s Meston Park. A development company wants the land, and the Corrowa have filed a land claim to prevent the company from getting it. Brosnan rules for the company, saying that the Corrowa people cannot prove uninterrupted use of the land. Hours later, he is murdered, and a red feather is found near his body. Then, others involved in the case are also killed. The police, in the form of Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate. They are convinced that someone who took the side of the Corrowa people is responsible. At the same time, Miranda Eversley, who argued the case for the Corrowa, has gone into a tailspin after her loss in court. It’s not just her pride that’s stung, either. She is Aboriginal, and this loss is a very personal one. Still, she wants to know the truth about the killings. So, in her ow way, she starts to ask questions. Each with a different approach, she and Matthews work to find out who the killer is.
And then there’s Theresa Schwegel’s The Good Boy. In one plot thread of that novel, eleven-year-old Joel Murphy witnesses a drugs deal and a shooting at a party. He’s not hurt, nor is his sister (who’s at the party). But he’s badly frightened. He takes off, and, as soon as he calms down a bit, decides what to do. He will go in search of Judge Katherine ‘Kitty’ Crawford, whom he knows because his father, Pete, was assigned to protect her after a controversial ruling. At the time, she told Joel he could come see her if he was ever in trouble, and he takes her at her word. Needless to say, his parents are frantic when he doesn’t come home, and part of the novel’s focus is their search for Joel. Another is the shooting itself, and another is a case related to the controversial case that put Crawford’s life at risk. Among other things, it’s a reminder that judges sometimes make very unpopular rulings, and that their rulings sometimes have unexpected consequences.
Being a judge is sometimes a thankless task, and it carries serious responsibility. It’s interesting to see how that work fits in with the other roles people play in the criminal justice system. And it’s interesting to see how characters who are judges fit in in crime fiction. These are only a few. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by 10cc.