Friday, May 11, 2012

Case notes, or, Some disconnected bits on the law and justice

1 When I'm between books, I often turn to John Mortimer's Rumpole stories, through which I've slowly been making my way for the past several years. Usually Rumpole's relationship with and characterization of his wife is a subject of humor verging on whining--he regularly refers to her, in a nod to Rider Haggard, as She Who Must Be Obeyed--but in "Rumpole at Sea," the story I read this morning, he quietly reveals that he has a lot more respect for Hilda than he usually lets on. In telling the story, Rumpole is forced to relate a number of events at which he was not present, but he explains, "I have reconstructed the following pages from [Mrs Rumpole's] evidence which was, as always, completely reliable." Later, he notes:
She Who Must Be Obeyed has a dead eye for detail and would have risen to great heights in the Criminal Investigation Department.
A reliable witness with a dead eye for detail? What higher praise could Rumpole offer?

2 One of the best moments early in Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity--a moment when you begin to realize that you're in the hands of a genius--is on the fifth page, when Casi, the protagonist, informs the reader that there is about to be a digression:
And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.
Said digression ensues, explaining in intense and often hilarious language the case and judicial and legal activity that led up to "the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy" and led to the warning about self-incrimination that TV has made so famous.

With A Naked Singularity on the brain last week, I was surprised to see the following exchange late in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend:
"Don't!" said Mr Inspector. "Why, why argue? It's my duty to inform you that whatever you say, will be used against you."

"I don't think it will."

"But I tell you it will," said Mr Inspector. "Now, having received the caution, do you still say that you foresaw my visit this afternoon?"
So as far back as that, in England, an officer--of a police force that had been in existence for less than forty years--already felt it was his duty to warn a suspect, and it was already known as "the caution"? I had no idea, and neither, it seems, does Wikipedia: the section on similar rights in England and Wales in the entry for Miranda, while noting that the right may have originated there, only traces it as far back as 1912. Any legal scholars want to weigh in?

3 In anticipation of Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (which is one the best books I've read in recent years), I read Ford Madox Ford's treatment of a slightly later period in the career of Thomas Cromwell, The Fifth Queen. Ford, a Catholic, lays his sympathy with Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth queen, and in the process he paints a much darker portrait of Cromwell than Mantel does. Ford's Cromwell isn't the ruthless villain he is forced to play as the foil of the perfectly noble Thomas More in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, but he is driven much more by self-interest than in Mantel's account, and his mutability is seen less as an emblem of his essential--and laudable--modernity than of an essential ethical slipperiness.

Mantel's Cromwell is so well drawn, so memorable, that he's hard to shake even as you're reading Ford, so when we see him meet the downfall we've known since the first page is inevitable, it's hard not to feel a real pang. The moment in The Fifth Queen when his last-ditch machinations fail and he's confronted by the lords who are his bitterest enemies, stripped of his chancellorship, and named a traitor unites the two characterizations and is vividly arresting:
Then such rage and despair had come into Thomas Cromwell's terrible face that Cranmer's senses had reeled. He had seen Norfolk and the Admiral fall back before this passion; he had seen Thomas Cromwell tear off his cap and cast it on the floor; he had heard him bark and snarl out certain words into the face of the yellow dog of Norfolk.

"Upon your life you dare not call me traitor!" and Norfolk had fallen back abashed.

Then the chamber had seemed to fill with an awful gloom and darkness; men showed only like shadows against the window lights; the constable of the Tower had come in with the warrants, and in that gloom the earth had appeared to tremble and quake beneath the Archbishop's feet.
And now on to Bring Up the Bodies!

4 As seems only right on questions of the law and justice, I'll let Kafka have the last word. This comes from Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka (1968):
How often is injustice committed in the name of justice? How often does damnation fly the flag of enlightenment? How often does a fall disguise itself as a rise? We can see it all now quite properly. The war didn't only burn and tear the world, but also lit it up. We can see that it is a labyrinth built by men themselves, an icy machine world, whose comforts and apparent purposefulness increasingly emasculate and dishonour us.

1 comment:

  1. I must admit that it was the exact same page of 'A Naked Singularity' that first made me feel I was in good hands, though several paragraphs earlier--the sequence with the schizophrenic and the Locke joke. And THEN the Miranda section kicked in, and was marvellous!