“Next to justice, I like winning best.” – Ben Matlock, fictional trial lawyer.
I, like you, have a passion for justice. We’re hard-wired for it. Not just mystery writers, but everyone.
As a teenager, I was dead certain I had the ability to judge each and every event and person with a cold, critical eye and deliver a sound opinion as to what was fair in under a minute. What teenager can’t?
Now with more than thirty years of law practice behind me, the definition of “justice” is sometimes not so clear.
Painful as it is to admit, there have been times when a jury or judge disagreed with me. The elegance of the jury system is that one’s peers – members of the community which has a vested interest in settling disputes between its neighbors – is trusted with applying its mores and standards in determining what is right and wrong. It’s not a perfect system. Jury pools can be swayed, resulting in unfair decisions as we’ve seen oh so many times. Few people are ambivalent about fairness of the O.J. Simpson verdict or the McDonald’s spilled coffee award.
But, more often than not, I am loathe to doubt jurors who disrupted their families and jobs in order to sit through hours of tedious evidence in room with egos the like of which you’ll never see again, who in fact know a lot more about the case than I ever will, and who were brave enough to stand up and deliver a verdict. We are lucky to have citizens willing to participate.
As for the cases that I flat out won, I – like Matlock – like winning a lot. There are few things that feel so good as being told you were right. In fact, I like it so much that when I get back to the office, I put a CD of Queen’s “We are the Champions” and sing along with it all afternoon. I like winning so much I have a photo of the defense team from one of my most hard-fought wins on a shelf above my computer monitor. In my copier room is a framed exhibit from another case I won, a picture of a vintage airplane, hanging on the wall reminding me of how the opposing attorney called to tell me I was going to lose and how hard I worked to win it. I didn’t win it just because I worked harder or I was smarter. I won that case because it was justice.
It’s justice that inspires me to write mystery. There are injustices I see that are too big for me to handle as an attorney but as a writer, I can. I can shape the characters, identify the competing drives and the different concepts of justice, plot the mystery puzzle, pose the ultimate question (which is not who did it or why they did it) and then put the readers in the jury’s position and let them decide: what is fair?
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