The Limits of Justice
For about a year, ex-reporter Benjamin Justice has been wallowing in the misery that is his life. Once a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, he was stripped of the award when it was discovered he fabricated the facts and details of the story. His personal life is in a shambles and he’s got a couple of dark secrets that have him shut away in his apartment, hiding from the world. But everything changes when Justice gets a visit and a job offer from Charlotte Preston. Daughter of Rod Preston, a recently deceased movie star, Charlotte asks Justice to ghostwrite her father’s biography in order to counteract a recent tell-all bio about her father, which accuses the actor of horrific crimes of unspeakable sexual depravity involving the systematic rape and murder of children. Charlotte wants Justice to help her repudiate the earlier book. Justice says he’ll think about it and sends Charlotte on her way. He ultimately decides not to write the book and goes to visit Charlotte to return the huge advance she’d given him… and finds her dead. The police rule the death a suicide, but Justice naturally wonders if she was murdered. Justice quickly learns that not only were the terrible facts on the scandalous bio the truth, but that there are even darker, more insidious evils at play… and that Charlotte was murdered to keep them hidden.
The Limits of Justice is an extremely well written novel. The prose is lyrical, sometimes even poetic, and the author makes the city of Los Angeles – where much of the story takes place – vivid and alive. There are also visits to Mexico and the desert that are so well described that the reader feels as if they are there without being bombarded by detail. Characterization, with one exception (and the exception is a doozy), is well done. I loved Justice’s best friend and former co-worker, Templeton. She is a bright, funny and intriguing lady and I wanted to know more about her. In fact, I found the lady so interesting I’d like to see her at the center of her own novel. Other supporting characters, such as Justice’s neighbors, the various suspects in the murder and a young Mexican boy he meets as part of the investigation were interesting characters who were sharply and wonderfully written, despite their brief screen time. The problem with characterization and the overall problem with the novel itself is personified in the depiction of Justice, in that the writer seriously lacks restraint when it comes to this character’s issues and certain plot points in the novel.
As mentioned, Justice has so many issues that he has shut himself away from the world. His job woes, his personal life, the death of a close friend and one other problem (that I cannot mention here – but I will say it was completely unnecessary and was nearly enough to make me close the book 50 pages into it) have deadened the character and he suffers one long pity party that last through the entire book, despite the horrors that he witnesses. Justice uncovers a host of crimes such as child sexual assault and murder, body mutilations, rape, kidnapping, incest, suicide (not Charlotte’s) and even echoes of the Holocaust. I understand why Justice hides away from life the way he has (though it seemed excessive), but having him continuing to feel sorry for himself with all that was going on, with people suffering worse problems than himself, got annoying and made the character unsympathetic.
In fact, I wondered why Justice was even investigating the case and risking his life. Was it to find out who killed Charlotte? Did he want to protect more children from being raped and murdered? Did he want to solve the crimes as a way of dealing with his own problems, both current and in his very complicated and troubled back story? I don’t know. I never really got a sense of why Justice wanted to solve the murder. He just seemed to be doing it with no motivation. Or at least none that I could see. Neither does he grow or change during the novel or because of it’s events, something that is rather hard to believe.
But even worse was the fact that the writer kept piling horror upon horror upon horror to the point that it seemed unnecessary and gratuitous. It seemed as if the writer threw in everything but the kitchen sink. And the fact that Justice seemed so detached and distant from it all made the reader feel the same. This particularly includes the ending, which plays like a scene in a crummy B horror movie. Instead of being shocked or horrified, I thought it was silly and over the top.
Despite the flaws, The Limits of Justice has a striking writing style. Some of the passages are moving and quite wonderful to read. The problem comes with the writer’s tendency to over-plot, which I suspect he might feel takes the place of characterization and motivation for his protagonist. It doesn’t.