I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial. For neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not. (Patricia Highsmith)
The Golden Age mystery and its later avatars are, we are told as nauseam, primarily about restoring order; a good or a bad thing depending on the speaker’s ideological proclivities but everyone until recently agreed that the genre is structurally, if not always politically, conservative. It is of course a cliché: There are many Golden Age mysteries in which order is not restored in the end, or not entirely, or with a heavy price to pay. Some authors even made a specialty of defying readers’ expectation of everything being well in the end. There’s no denying however that a majority of writers favoured a « happily ever after » kind of ending – but a happy ending is not necessarily one in which order is restored. Sounds like a paradox? Not at all. The idea that order is restored entails among other things that justice has been done, with the criminal receiving their comeuppance, preferably but not necessarily at the hands of law. The problem is, not all Golden Age writers shared the same conception of justice or cared equally about it – some even didn’t believe in it at all.
Conan Doyle, though nobody’s idea of a revolutionary, was one of the earliest crime writers and probably the most influential one to question traditional notions of justice by having Sherlock Holmes frequently « playing God » and letting « justified » criminals go free. The reason why Victorian and later readers didn’t object was that Holmes’s « verdicts » while clearly flouting the law, didn’t go against traditional morality. None of the criminals he « pardoned » really deserved to go to jail or worse to the gallows, and Holmes could be inflexible when he encountered genuine evil.
The detective as judge and jury reached its apex during the Golden Age. Nearly every sleuth of the period had at least one case in which they took justice in their own hands, at times literally – even that « right to life » absolutist Hercule Poirot once had to « play God » to make sure a particularly obnoxious murderer got what he deserved. Most of their decisions still met more or less the Holmesian criteria of moral acceptability, but some were far more problematic. Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham for instance or John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale all displayed an extremely idiosyncratic sense of justice that frequently benefited people who didn’t deserve such clemency. Berkeley’s disregard for conventional justice and morality overall found its roots in a deeply misanthropic worldview that held that some people are better off dead whereas Carr’s ethos stemmed from his aversion to institutions, including legal ones, but most fictional detectives indulging into obstruction of justice or extrajudicial killing were motivated by the crassly elitist idea that some lives are more worthy than others. Not all victims and murderers being born equal, it is questionable whether « justice » really describes the outcome even though « order » is restored on surface.
This being said, one should not succumb to overanalyzing. Most Golden Age fiction was not concerned with justice or order, at least on a conscious level. The final « restoration of order », when there was one, was in most cases a narrative device rather than a political statement. It was also the realization of the hard truth that most readers react negatively to the absence of closure, which might in turn negatively impact sales. Golden Agers for all their theorizing and literary ambitions knew they were writing popular fiction, and popular fiction has to sell.