Past Judgement is a slow paced mystery, whose chief protagonist is Emma Harrison, the twenty something assistant governor at Reading Young Offender‘s Institution. When one of the inmates, Leroy Carter, absconds it leads to Emma, along with a face from her past, Sgt Billy Williams and DI Anderson to question whether there has been a miscarriage of justice.
The strength of Wendy Cartmell’s novel, for me, doesn’t lie with the mystery but with the questions it forces the reader to address via the characters she has created. I found both leading characters difficult to like and, that in itself, lends the story a gritty realism reflecting the harsh prison backdrop to which it is set.
Emma Harrison has been fast-tracked through her career and is a combination of naiveté and ambition. There is no doubt that she cares about the welfare of the inmates and sees their future redemption in education. However, at the same time, she has her eye firmly fixed on the role of governor and enjoys the power that being a young woman in a male prison brings. She finds affirmation in the literal power of being the one holding all the keys, a fact that Cartmell refers to several times and also the way her sexuality gives her power over the young men who are locked up. There are hints of Emma’s troubled past, she was brought up by foster parents and, three years prior to the story, caught up in a train hijack by terrorists. What Emma does for me is raise questions about the complex motivations of a young woman, drawn to a world that is by its very nature, male dominated.
Likewise Leroy Carter is a representation of modern Britain, a young man brought up by a negligent single mum; he drifts towards crime and drugs. His saviour comes in the form of the army but, early on in his new career, he is convicted of murder. Cartmell depicts the anger that is never very far from the surface in lots of alienated young men and Leroy is very much a victim of his environment. He is prone to violence and his moral compass is somewhat skewed. The question the reader is forced to address during the course of the novel, however, is whether, just because he is an angry and not a particularly pleasant individual, does that make him a murderer?
An added layer to the story arrives in the shape of Sgt Billy Williams, who works for the military police. Emma and Billy have a past history from the train hijack and are clearly attracted to each other. Cartmell leaves the reader with the idea that, as the series progresses, so too will their relationship.
I enjoyed Past Judgement as I think it is a very relevant reflection of our society and Cartmell obviously has a personal knowledge of the prison system. If you like a novel that makes you think then you should give Past Judgement a try.