Cozzens’ 1942 Novel About the Courts, “The Just and the Unjust” – A Book Review

Most, though not all, of the novel The Just and the Unjust (1942) is taken up with a trial wherein two reprobates stand accused of murdering another reprobate, a drug dealer.  Abner Coates is the assistant district attorney who helps to prosecute the men, hoping for a severe verdict.

Abundant human evil and human folly are featured in this engrossing novel by James Gould Cozzens, the latter of which—folly—Abner himself demonstrates by unfairly disliking a county chairman called Jesse Gearhart.  An admirable man, Abner is also a flawed one.  He has a disdain for “things as they are” in his environment, which in his case reflects an attitude not fully adult (or fully righteous).

Subplots spring up in the book, such as one about a schoolteacher tried for lewd conduct—a subplot which, alas, turns offensively sexist for a brief bit.  Also, Cozzens’s prose is frequently as sloppy as I suppose Dostoyevsky’s is in the original Russian.  At any rate, it wouldn’t surprise me if The Just and the Unjust was one of the best novels about the law and the courts ever written.  It does a good job of showing us, as has been accurately pointed out about the book, that the law is only as strong as the people who handle and make use of it.  It’s smart and exploratory.

Critics have attacked Cozzens for siding with privileged characters (e.g., an assistant district attorney).  What fools.  Privilege has to go to somebody.  Does it also offend them that Job and Abraham and Solomon were rich?

The Just and the Unjust

The Just and the Unjust (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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