Blind Justice recounts the story of a young boy, whose father having been pelted to death in the stocks for having printed handbills with Voltaire’s heresy, fled to London and spent an exciting few days of 1765 in the custody of Sir John Fielding’s court. In his first hours in London he is set up and apprehended by an independent thief-taker, but so poorly is the plan executed and so well does the blind Sir Fielding see through his prosecutors that the boy is freed, that the prosecutors are mocked and arrested for contempt of court. Sir Fielding remands the orphaned Jeremy Proctor to the custody of the court and sets about trying to locate an apprenticeship with a printer for him.

Before any arrangements can be made, the untimely death of Lord Goodhope intrudes and Sir Fielding must investigate. Lord Goodhope shot himself in the head with a pistol; the household servants were questioned (without being of much help), and Lady Goodhope is recommended to check into her husband’s financial accounts. During the examination Jeremy is of some use as an observer, but more so afterwards, when he mentions that Lord Goodhope’s hands were clean—one cannot shoot an early pistol without some of the powder discoloring the hand; hence Lord Goodhope cannot have shot himself.

In the morning we learn that Sir Fielding’s wife is dying of cancer. A surgeon who recently returned from school in Italy and a service in the Navy had attended to the wounds of one of the Court’s constables and suggests that opium would at least ease her pain. Jeremy becomes more and more useful as Sir Fielding’s eyes, and when they return to the Goodhope residence to examine the room that the late Lord Goodhope died in, Sir Fielding has Jeremy examine the room and wall of the house in the garden to see if there is a secret passage somewhere.

The surgeon, Donnelly, requests and is granted an autopsy (only it was called an “obduktion” then). A few court scenes further impress upon the reader the justice of Sir Fielding and his ability to determine the truth of a situation. The obduktion reveals the Lord Goodhope was, in fact poisoned. A subsequent visit to the Goodhope residence ensues, where Jeremy is sent ahead to talk to the servants and discovers that Lord Goodhope was in the habit of raucous parties and some abuses to the servant girls. A chance messenger reveals that Lord Goodhope’s half-brother, Charles Clairmont was in London on business from the Colonies. He is questioned in Sir Fielding’s court offices, with Jeremy sweeping the floor as a front so that he could observe Mr. Clairmont’s character, of which he though somewhat less than ideal, as well as him having a shiny face.

Later Sir Fielding and Jeremy visit a performance of Macbeth, the last performance of Miss Lucy Kilbourne, a favorite of the theater and a mistress of Lord Goodhope. Interviews are conducted with the proprietor of the theater, and Miss Kilbourne, from whom Sir Fielding learns who makes her dresses. Jeremy, with the help of one of the Goodhope servants, a secret passage from the alley to the library where Lord Goodhope died. He also delivers a letter to Miss Kilbourne’s dressmaker; it happens that Miss Kilbourne was there and appears to direct the response, but shortly afterwards the dressmaker arrives at the court to state the truth which she did not have the opportunity express in the letter. That evening the pair visit Mr. Bilbo’s establishment for games of chance, where Lord Goodhope had run up some debts (and to whom Mr. Bilbo had rid himself of the extremely high-maintenance Miss Kilbourne who had been his lover) and to whom his London house was owed. Mr. Bilbo is interviewed and we learn that he is more respectable than might be expected, although unrelenting in his debt collection. Mr. Clairmont and Miss Kilbourne, also in attendance that evening, as well as Mr. Bilbo, are invited—nay, required—to a gathering the next evening.

The evening arrives and the preparations have been made. The room has a blazing fire and is quite warm. Various witnesses are called to describe events. After the captain of Mr. Clairmont’s ship indicated a discrepancy between the ships actual location and Mr. Clairmont’s description on the night of Lord Goodhope’s death, tea was served. The maid (intentionally) spills the tea on Mr. Clairmont’s lap and he berates her loudly and by name, revealing that he is, in fact, Lord Goodhope. Apparently Lord Goodhope wished to rid himself of some of his gambling debts, and being a silent co-owner of a trading corporation with Mr. Clairmont, wished to sell some of the corporation’s assets. Mr. Clairmont disagreed. When the ship put to shore in Bristol just before its arrival in London, he was invited to London by Miss Kilbourne, who poisoned him, while Lord Goodhope put on makeup and donned Mr. Clairmont’s manner, boarded the ship, and quite successfully impersonated him. Goodhope’s servant, Dillon, awaiting criminal trial for another offense, took the dying Clairmont to the library (via a rotating bookshelf installed when the house was used to shelter Catholics in earlier years) with Lord Goodhope, who shot him in the face in a manner that appear to be suicide yet completely destroyed the face. Lord Goodhope ensures his demise by knifing Dillon.

Miss Kilbourne was found guilty, but because she was pregnant, she was sent to the Colonies, and eventually becomes a prominent wife there. The captain of the ship was sentenced to ten years labor in the Colonies for being a part of the plot and was killed by some of the African slaves he had transported there. Lord Goodhope was found guilty of murder by a jury of his peers (namely, the House of Lords). Sir Fielding’s wife eventually dies, and Jeremy is successfully apprenticed off.

Blind Justice has a similar quality to the short stories of O'Henry in that they both are detailed pictures into daily life of yesteryear. Alexander has clearly thoroughly researched the time period and portrays a sense of actually being there, describing the scenes in such a fashion that the story smoothly flows but also informs the reader. Being historical fiction, certain well-known historical characters make brief appearances in the story and help anchor the reader’s sense of being there. The most interesting are the descriptions of life in London: how the markets are laid out; the difficulty of the poor; a bit of social commentary; watching Sir Fielding’s housekeeper keep the house, act as a servant, yet care deeply for the family; and explanations of what went on behind the wealthy lords and the prominent society that is most of what we are ordinarily exposed to by history.

The story is smoothly told with the more complicated sentence structure of Victorian novels, adding, as it does to the atmosphere of the book, yet remains eminently readable. The plot is pretty much self-contained, with characters such as Dillon, who is introduced originally to illustrate the character of Newgate prison, yet turns out to have played an actual role. This tidyness seems to me to be a bit too artificial, but does not detract from the enjoyability of the book. The characters are certainly very well-fleshed out, each having their own personality, which is gradually revealed throughout the book.

The only complaint that I have about the book is that Jeremy seems unusually observant for an 11-year old boy. A very clinical, objective, detailed description of rooms seems quite beyond children of that age. Sir Fielding will occasionally ask his opinion of the character (moral and otherwise) of various people he interviews, and the responses reveal a depth of human experience that children, while very observant, seem unlikely to have acquired. However, a little suspension of disbelief is regularly required of fiction readers, and the story is quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Blind Justice, while a fun read, feels to me like an entertainment novel. Although the author’s opinion of eighteenth century social issues is expressed through the explanations and actions of Sir Fielding, it fails to have the social commentary of Literature. The characters are developed, but do not, themselves, deepen emotionally over the course of the story, which is another hallmark of Literature. However, Sherlock Holmes and Watson never develop over the course of their adventures, either, yet the stories stick in the imagination in a fashion that Blind Justice does not. Doyle, the author of Holmes, has but one persistent theme, which the stories are arranged to justify: when all the alternatives are eliminated, what is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Blind Justice has no such theme, and as such seems to wander around for a purpose.

It is perhaps ironic that this reviewer decried the emphasis on themes in high school, insisting that books are for entertainment. So although this book may not make the 100-year grade, it successfully attains that purpose which was all that I originally desired: it is simply a good story.
Review: 8
This is a good story. Not a great story, but an enjoyable read. Clearly the author’s purpose is not to make lasting literature, yet, in an objective analysis, while the story is fun, it is not particularly memorable. Of course, Doyle did not set out to make lasting stories, either, just to pay the bills, but engineered his stories with a singleness of purpose that seems to distinguish greatness. The descriptions are very good, which raises this from a 7 to an 8. Despite my feelings of mediocrity, I enjoyed the book. I am inclined to read the some more of the series, because I like the characters (particularly the wise judge Sir Fielding).

Literary Notes

  • Literature (capital “L” literature) appears to be marked by a consistent theme (e.g. Grapes of Wrath) and/or an exploration of human nature as the characters develop and understand the world better.
  • Greatness in writing seems to be the consistent development on one purpose. Everything in the writing must tend towards that end.