Who Deserves What?

PD James’ latest Dalgliesh crime novel, The Private Patient (2008), is set largely in Devon at a manor house-cum-plastic surgery center. Central themes seem to include worthiness and what we deserve, revenge, redemption, forgiveness, the inability to forgive.

When the book opens, the reader is in the mind of the soon-to-be murder victim, Rhoda, and after her death, at various times we’re privy to the thoughts and feelings of a number of other characters, including suspects and police. Rhoda turns out to be a rather single-minded and self-focused woman whose actions have been at least partially responsible for others’ pain and harm, and by allowing us the victim’s pov at the start, I think James aids our ability to sympathise with her.

Speaking of her family of origin, Rhoda recalls:

“Those outbursts of violence, the impotent rage, the shame, had done for them all. The important things had been unsayable. And looking into her mother’s face, she asked herself how could she begin now? She thought her mother was right. It couldn’t have been easy for her father to find that five-pound note week after week. It had come with a few words, sometimes in shaky handwriting: With love from Father. She had taken the money because she needed it and had thrown away the paper. With the casual cruelty of an adolescent, she had judged him unworthy to offer her his love, which she had always known was a more difficult gift than money. Perhaps the truth was that she hadn’t been worthy to receive it.”

Later, Dalgliesh, Kate and Benton are discussing the case over wine:

Benton says:

People die because of who they are and what they are. Isn’t that part of the evidence? I’d feel differently about the death of a child, a young person, the innocent.”


“Innocent? So you feel confident to make the distinction between the victims who deserve death and those who don’t? … Moral outrage is natural. Without it we’re hardly human. But for a detective faced with the dead body of a child. the young, the innocent, making an arrest can become a personal campaign, and that’s dangerous. It can corrupt judgment. Every victim deserves the same commitment.”

This reminded me of a comment I read recently, attributed to Gil Bailie:

Anything one does to champion the cause of the victim creates new victims, so then you have a shift in the marker, and the moral boomerang comes back upon those who were trying to champion the cause of victims and therefore made victims and therefore became victimizers and therefore the whole thing begins to shift again.”

I think Dalgliesh is saying the same thing, though the line seems to so fine and the task so daunting — to hear the victim, to do what one can to stop the making of victims (including recognising oneself as complicit in the ways we are), without making the avenging of victims a campaign, a cause to champion, a justification for victimising others.

Finally, James nicely summarises the way that finding an appropriate scapegoat brings order and peace to a community. Dalgliesh is musing about how suspects feel about the police:

“At first he and his team are awaited and greeted with relief. Action would be taken, the case cleared up, the horror which was also an embarrassment would be salved, the innocent vindicated, the guilty — probably a stranger whose fate could cause no distress — would be arrested and dealt with. Law, reason and order would replace the contaminating disorder of murder. But there had been no arrest and no sign of one. It was still early days, but for the small company at the Manor there was no foreseeable end to his presence or to his questioning. He understood their growing resentment …. “

Later she alludes briefly to the psychology of suspicion:

“Murder was a contaminating crime, subtly changing relationships which, even if not close, had been easy and without strain …. It wasn’t a question of active suspicion, more the spread of an atmosphere of unease, a growing awareness that other people, other minds, were unknowable.”


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