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Volume 27, Number 1, Fall 2008

The Justice Cooperative

By Joe Martino

Elderberry Press, 2004
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

What could possibly drive a good person to commit murder? Does killing an evil person justify such an act, or remove guilt? Joe Martino’s novel, The Justice Cooperative, grapples with these questions through the lives of a young couple caught in a desperate situation.

Tom and Judith Borden lived through a traumatic experience that shattered their lives. Harry Grubbs—an unrepentant criminal—broke into their house, raped Judith in front of her husband, and went to prison vowing revenge. The Bordens seemingly picked up the pieces of the lives and tried to move on, but nothing really stays the same after such an experience. Their marriage suffered, their outlook on life darkened, and future thoughts of a family faded in the aftermath of the brutal attack. When a judge orders a large-scale release of prisoners due to over-crowding, the Bordens are horrified to discover that Grubbs is among those due for early release. Having thought themselves safe, they now experience a new terror. Will Grubbs come after them, and what are their options?

Tom Borden begins to think of self-defense. Spurred by his fear that he was unable to protect his wife earlier, he visits a gun store. Initially he feels out of his depth, uncertain about what gun to buy, and even if a gun really will help him. After all, a weapon in the hands of an untrained user could quickly be turned on the owner by a hardened criminal. Tom also worries about how his wife will think about the idea of guns. The store clerk however tries to ease Tom’s fears, suggesting various options to educate Tom, and recommending that his wife also get a gun, and that they seek training.

Together, the Bordens slowly grow used to their new weapons. At gun ranges and training classes they meet new people and discuss gun laws and gun ethics, along with issues of individual liberty and self defense. Leaving a lesson at a range they discover a paper on their car, about a group calling itself “The Justice Cooperative.” This group promises to solve all their issues related to Grubbs. Initially the Bordens reject the idea; the law will take care of them.

The specter of Harry Grubbs lurks in the corners, an eternal but unknown threat, until one day they see Grubbs in their neighborhood. When they contact the police the response is non-existent, and the Bordens begin to feel like the criminals. Has the legal system abandoned them? After all, this system sent criminals like Grubbs back on the street, and the detective in charge seems more interested in keeping a low profile until his retirement than helping them. Could this “Justice Cooperative” help after all? When they discover the terrible price they must pay to be free from Grubbs, they balk, but then slowly change their minds.

The concept behind this Cooperative is eerie, morally ambiguous. They promise to remove Grubbs, but only if the Bordens first kill someone equally evil, quite a dilemma indeed. The novel skates into dangerous moral territory with such a group. The Bordens engage an elaborate spy game to maintain secrecy, yet take the mission of this group almost at face value. By agreeing to the terms of the Justice Cooperative they essentially agree to commit murder on behalf of a shadow organization, one that in turn could send someone to kill them. Obviously others have been persuaded to kill on behalf of this organization before, and probably will continue should the Bordens finish their mission. Once they commit this murder they are never safe. The justice system certainly would not hesitate to go after them.

Martino’s story is driven by its characters, and the Bordens feel very real. At times characters fall into the mode of preaching, but the events and reactions are human, poignant, and gripping, unlike some other pro-gun novels I’ve read. The main characters, as well as most of the people they encounter are blue-collar everyday Joes and Janes. Some stereotypes dragged the plot in places, especially in terms of the portrayal of members of law enforcement and the legal profession. Not every cop sees their aim as disarming innocents and being over-protective of convicted criminals, but in Martino’s novel this was more often the case than not.

The book adds another dimension. The Bordens languished in their post-Grubbs incident. Their marriage barely existed, they daily routine fragile. The return of Grubbs acts as a catalyst. They take control of their lives, discover direction and shared interests, and start to love each other again. Could they maintain this path and avoid becoming monsters by agreeing to the terms of the Justice Cooperative, or do they need this ultimate act to exorcize their inner demons as much as the very physical demon?

The Justice Cooperative satisfied on almost every level. It is an emotional novel for our age and time, a reminder that life is precious, that moral decisions are made on many levels, from the ultimate one of life and death, to basic acts of friendship and kindness. The eponymous organization provides a strong moral dilemma to the novel, adding the critical twist beyond a simple revenge and self-defense story.

Although not overtly science fiction in any way, in my opinion the idea of the Justice Cooperative strangely almost qualifies the novel as a work of science fiction. It is one of those powerful What If stories we all expect from SF, and delivers every punch with effort and verve, and ends up being a disturbing yet cathartic tale. The novel essentially asks the reader: could you take on the same mission as the Bordens? Are there other ways?

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