Dostoyevsky famously said: ‘The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.’ Winston Churchill said, ‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.’ Or, of course, it’s lack of civilisation. Look at the rising prison numbers in America and the system’s treatment of black people in particular; look at the crisis in our own criminal justice system, and you understand a lot about society and government. Look at the treatment of crime and criminals in a crime fiction novel and you’ll learn a lot about what the author is trying to say, and about the historical era in which they’re writing.
No matter what my novels are ostensibly about – and my second one is about dark folklore on the Isle of Skye, and my next one is about moving clockwork dolls and Versailles – I always end up talking in them about justice and what it means to obtain justice for the victims and survivors. That may be because I’m a criminal justice solicitor, but then again perhaps I ended up in that field because I’m fascinated by how society treats its criminals and its victims.
I’m not alone in finding the topic compelling. We all have highly personal beliefs and emotions about what constitutes a crime; when someone is responsible for their crimes; and how the legal system ought to deal with them. Defining and punishing crime, and protecting citizens from crime, are key roles of government and often lead to public debate: who should we imprison and where and how? How much of a role should victims have in the system? Are there ever circumstances where capital punishment or torture are justifiable? These are debates we’ve always had, only the answers have varied across the ages.
That leads to a rich subject to explore in fiction, where we can walk readers through a search for justice, and through the ambiguities and frustrations along the way.
Window onto the past
What constituted a crime, who constituted a criminal, and how those people were dealt with gives us a unique window onto the past. And punishment of crime can of course be one of the most terrifying uses of state power, capable of ruining lives, producing serious injustice, and sure-ing up the authority of oppressive regimes.
Part of the reason the Tudors have always held such fascination for us is the bloody and tyrannical nature of their so-called justice system, which was as much about settling scores and seeking revenge as it was about attaining justice, something which is depicted most brilliantly in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose showed us the complex and shady power exercised by the Church in the 14th century. Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy exposed the corrupt system that, in late 19th century France led to Alfred Dreyfus being false convicted of espionage, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Antonia Hodgson’s Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity showed us the injustice and inhumanity of the prisons of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The protagonist as finder of justice
As well as exploring the justice systems of the era in which they are set, many historical novels seek to attain justice or revenge or payback or some kind of catharsis for their characters within the terms of the novel.
This is of course in line with the classical detective story model, which gives us the story of the crime, followed by the story of the investigation, involving enquiry, revelation and closure. The rise of detective fiction happened at about the same time as the beginning of detective policing i.e. in the mid 19th century. If crime was the problem, then the solution was the capture and removal of the criminal. That was how justice would be achieved. So in fiction, removing the offender from the scene healed the breach in the social fabric. The problem was solved, be it by Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Jackson Brodie.
The assumption of the detective genre is that not only is there a motive and a true meaning to the crime, but the detective can uncover it, deliver the criminal, achieve justice and narrate the story in a form that transmits that coherence to the awaiting reader. And that is why it’s so satisfying. Because of course real crime is usually not like that, and I say this as someone whose day job is dealing with where things go wrong in criminal investigations and prosecutions. Even if a crime is reported, it may not be properly investigated. Even if it is, the Crown Prosecution Service may decide not to charge. Even if it gets to court, it may collapse. Even if a conviction is secured, the criminal may refuse to explain why they acted as they did, or the sentence they are given may fail, in the eyes of the victim, to reflect the severity of their crimes. There is rarely any neat conclusion to real criminal cases, rarely any feeling among victims that justice has been achieved and normality restored. Often the detective figures are too busy doing other things or too hampered by funding cuts, poor training and huge caseloads to go about achieving a cathartic ending for the victims.
Not so in detective fiction. Or at least, not usually. Many of the detective figures in modern historical mysteries are focussed on achieving justice for victims. ‘Justice, Sergeant Shardlake. I know you have always believed in it, and have sometimes sought it in dark corners.’ So says Lady Elizabeth to CJ Sansom’s Shardlake who is always questing to find justice for the underprivileged. The same is true of Mick Finlay’s Arrowood, forever fighting for the underdog.
Alternative forms of justice
Of course obtaining justice within a novel does not always meaning sending the criminal to jail and throwing away the key. Particularly where the justice system is shown to be corrupt and unfair, justice may have to be achieved in a different way.
In my second novel, The Story Keeper, I wanted one of the evil characters to be punished, but – because this was the 19th century and the character was an upper class man of status - I knew there was no chance he would ever be arrested, never mind prosecuted, for sexual offences against poor girls. (Looking at some recent cases, it’s arguable things haven’t changed hugely). I spoke to an academic who suggested that, instead, I use the divorce courts that were beginning in that era: the police might not arrest the man, but his crimes could be aired in a different kind of court.
Other historical authors have found other solutions. At the end of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Maud also destroys the thing that she knows will destroy the wicked uncle who has abused her: his library. In The Crimson Petal and the White, Sugar never lives out the bloody revenge she has described in her own writings, but she frees the other woman William Rackham has tormented - his wife, Agnes - and she escapes with the little girl to whom he’s never shown any love.
In some novels, the possible injustice or unfairness of the character’s fate is the point of the novel. When Burial Rites opens, Agnes has already been convicted and sentenced to death for murder. In Jill Dawson’s Fred & Edie and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, both based on real women, unpick the emotional climate of their times and show us – whatever the truth of these cases – these women were damned before their trials even began.
My first novel, The Unseeing, was also based on the life of a real woman, Sarah Gale, who was convicted with her lover of murder in London in 1837. The focus of the novel is whether or not she did in fact carry out the crime she is accused of and if so, why. That is because when I first read about the case I began to wonder whether – due to the inadequacies of the justice system particularly in relation to women, and particularly in relation to so called ‘fallen women’ - there had been a miscarriage of justice. One of the key themes of the novel is what constitutes justice, and the detective character, who is the lawyer appointed to investigate her appeal, must determine what justice means for Sarah.
Perfume by Suskind subverts the ‘justice must be done’ formula altogether. Grenouille escapes the scaffold for the murders he’s committed, but then pours an entire bottle of his final perfume on himself, leading to a group of criminals being so overcome by what they later claim is ‘love’ that they tear him to pieces and eat him.
The impact of the justice system
For Antonia Hodgson, author of the Thomas Hawkins series, it’s not so much about getting justice for her characters as looking at what ‘the pursuit of justice and revenge does to them, how dangerous it can be for their souls (to use an eighteenth-century term). How their life experiences and character lead them to make certain choices, and the consequences of those actions.’
In each of Hodgson’s books, Tom is confronted with a by a (real) authority figure – the Marshalsea keeper William Acton, Queen Caroline, magistrate Sir John Gonson, former chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie - only to discover they are self-serving, corrupt, and/ or hypocritical. ‘In a corrupt world, the question becomes - do you take justice in your own hands? How does that look, and what does it do to you?’ We see Kitty and Tom both impacted by the actions they take, and the abuses that have been done to them. By the time we reach the latest in the series, The Silver Collar, the whole question of justice and revenge becomes central - particularly in the final act. Once Jeremiah and Tom know they have found the enemy, Lady Vanhook, they have to decide what they are going to do. How do they punish her? And in fact Hodgson plays a rather clever game to bring the reader into the story. We must ask what we ourselves think is right.
Punishment without crime
And then there are novels where people are punished, but their punishments don’t fit their crimes, or they aren’t remotely guilty at all. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell brings offenders to account, but usually not for the crimes they’ve actually committed. People pay for crime, but not necessarily their own. And Cromwell often commits crimes of his own in order to secure their convictions – surveillance, torture, deceit, fraud. The trilogy is so fascinating because we are never quite sure who to root for – the endlessly resourceful outsider, Cromwell, or the more or less innocent but unlikeable people whose heads end up on the chopping block.
A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel’s first work of historical fiction, is a fascinating study of how what started as a just revolution became a bloody massacre, where the so-called justice system descended - by Robespierre’s era - into an arena for different factions to send each other to the Guillotine. She begins one of her chapters with this quote from Robespierre: ‘Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.’
In fact, by that point, so-called justice was terror and retribution, and it wouldn’t be long before it came for Robespierre himself.
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. She spoke about justice and revenge in historical crime fiction at St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Festival and the video will be available until 31 August 2020.
Featured image: 'Waiting for the Verdict' by Abraham Solomon (1857)