A recent Canadian police procedural novel called Wild Justice comes from an unusual source. Arthur Haberman, professor emeritus at York University, is an extremely popular professor of humanities and history, the winner of prestigious teaching awards and a skilled writer. Haberman’s likable police officers have wide intellectual and cultural interests. Whether or not such policemen really exist, they provide a convenient and engaging way for Haberman to convey his ideas.
The hero of the book is Det. Sgt. Danny Miller of the Toronto Police Service’s homicide squad, the divorced Jewish father of a teenage son. Characters based loosely on real-life Canadians abound: one has a story like that of Michael Bryant, the former attorney general of Ontario who was charged with the death of a cyclist (the charges were ultimately dropped); another has some resemblance to disgraced radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
Much of the action takes place in thinly veiled but recognizable areas of the Toronto Jewish community. Danny is a graduate of, and his son currently attends, a school that sounds a lot like TanenbaumCHAT. (Haberman served for many years on the school’s board of directors.) In one scene, at a Friday night dinner involving members of a modern Orthodox synagogue on the Bathurst strip, south of Lawrence Avenue, the conversation centres around their synagogue’s plan to raise the height of the mechitzah, the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections. Such conversations were very common in that area just a few years ago.
Danny has a talent for solving difficult crimes, especially murders. He frequently consults with professors in the Toronto area, who use the insights of psychology, psychiatry and sociology to help him understand crimes and criminals. Danny is also on a first-name basis with the rabbi of a kollel on Bathurst Street, where Danny’s deceased father used to study Torah and where Danny still recites Kaddish for his father on his yahrzeit.
A crucial problem throughout the book is whether religion is a force for good or for evil in Canadian society. Not wanting to give away any of the mysteries in the book, I will simply say that at various points, we discover that ostensibly ultra-pious people have committed heinous crimes. In order not to besmirch any one religion, Haberman presents at least one devout Orthodox Jew, one devout Catholic and one devout Muslim who have done despicable deeds. Haberman hints more than once that very pious religious views can result from the sublimation, or attempted sublimation, of inappropriate sexual desires, a contention that has been heard so often, it is practically a cliché by now.
This portrayal of the problematic nature of religion is balanced with warm descriptions of family celebrations, including Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Danny appreciates Judaism, but does not see it as narrow or particularistic. He and his second-in-command, Nadiri, a Persian Muslim woman, and his new girlfriend, Gabriella, an Italian Catholic, take an Enlightenment-style worldview that all religions are fine when taken in moderation, and that they are not very different from each other.
Gabriella and Danny come to the conclusion that the students at Danny’s son’s Jewish high school and the Catholic high school where Gabriella teaches are very similar. Gabriella and one of Danny’s relatives conclude that the Catholic idea of “bearing witness,” or living one’s faith, and the Jewish value of tikun olam are basically equivalent. At times, the spirit of the book reminded me of the old joke that when a Christian who doesn’t believe deeply in Christianity talks to a Jew who doesn’t believe deeply in Judaism, they are both surprised to discover how much they have in common.
The characters in the book often discuss their attitudes toward revenge, another major theme of the book. They draw on the intellectual texts of the past, beginning with a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: “Revenge is always the delight of a mean spirit, of a weak and petty mind.” And then moving on to the English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who wrote that, “In taking revenge a man is but even with his enemy, but in passing over it he is superior.” A character also cites another quotation from Bacon, the source for the book’s title: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.” Another character cites Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye would make the world blind.”
But characters in the book also quote a different perspective, such as that of English poet Lord Byron, who said, “Revenge is sweet,” or the quip of American politician Robert Kennedy, “Don’t get mad, get even.” Not just name-dropping, these quotations set the background for intelligent discussions between characters about whether taking revenge against a cad who broke no laws but hurt someone emotionally is legitimate. The characters also try to figure out why they feel sympathy for a murderer who took revenge against someone who could not be convicted of the crime he committed.
Wild Justice is not just entertainment. It has many of the characteristics of a well-conceived university humanities course, forcing the reader to think about important moral issues and to bring the wisdom of the past to bear on his or her deliberations.