Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cornerstone: The Just and the Unjust
by James Gould Cozzens

Note: This continues my occasional series on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list (those mysteries deemed essential by Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen).
There's no focal point with a jury; the jury is the public itself. That's why a jury can say when a judge couldn't, "I don't care what the law is, that isn't right and I won't do it." It's the greatest prerogative of free men. . . .We pay a price for lay participation in the law; but it's a necessary expense.—James Gould Cozzens, The Just and the Unjust 428
The effect of a murder trial on a small Pennsylvania town is the focus of James Gould Cozzens's The Just and the Unjust (1942), which is mostly told through the point of view of Abner Coates, the young assistant district attorney. Because the victim is an unpleasant farmer involved with drugs and the accused perpetrators little more than thugs, the local law enforcement community regards the case more as a matter of duty than one of justice. The flamboyant defense attorney seems more interested in scoring points against the methodical district attorney, and Coates, who is the son of a prominent judge and is approached to run for DA by the local political boss, wonders if he will lose his soul if he takes the job.

Cozzens's honest, direct prose and grappling with legal dilemmas are refreshing to read, and he has a sure understanding of the myriad connections, political implications, and personal and professional troubles in a small town. Cozzens (1903–78) is best known for the World War II novel Guard of Honor (1948), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. Herbert Gorman in the July 26, 1942, New York Times considered The Just and the Unjust "an analysis of what might be called the American way of discipline." Time magazine called The Just and the Unjust "as skillfully served up as The Postman Always Rings Twice [and . . .] the year's most interesting literary disappointment." Yet Time put Cozzens on the cover of its Sept. 2, 1957, issue, calling him "the Garbo of U.S. letters" in its accompanying story.

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