My grandfather was a narcotics detective. He died 12 years before I was born, but I honor his memory with my television habits. Over the last two decades, I’ve watched countless hours of the classic police procedural Law and Order and its four spin-offs: the diabolical Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the psychological Law and Order: Criminal Intent, the tepid and short-lived Law and Order: Trial By Jury, and the latest metro-challenged incarnation, Law and Order: Los Angeles. So far this year, I’ve swallowed seasons of Damages, The Chicago Code, Detroit 1-8-7, Luther, and (belatedly) The Wire. If you’ve got the crime, I’ve got the time.
While my taste in books is far more diverse, I do keep a special place in my library for murder classics like Crime and Punishment, Native Son, and In Cold Blood, each with its own high stakes and existential drama. So when I saw Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, the latest from Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker, I put down my half-read copy of The Guermantes Way. No offense, Proust, but the musings of an invalid aristocrat have nothing on True Crime.
Iphigenia has all of the raw material of a classic courtroom drama: a grisly crime, eloquent attorneys, a bombastic judge, and an attractive, enigmatic defendant who seems both guilty and innocent. Mazoltuv Borukhova is a young doctor accused of paying a hit man $20,000 to kill her orthodontist husband after a judge gave him custody of their daughter. Perversely, the fatal shooting occurred in a playground in front of the four-year-old girl.
Like Dostoevsky, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, and David Simon, Malcolm often sympathizes with the accused. At the trial, she’s the only reporter who doesn’t favor the prosecution, dubbing herself “Ms. Defense Juror.” At times, her heart goes out to Borukhova, a professional woman who suffers “every mother’s worst nightmare” when a family court judge takes away her daughter on dubious grounds.
Still, the joy of Iphigenia lies in its ambiguity. At first, Borukhova seems guilty as hell, the evidence against her damning, her husband an innocent victim, and her conviction a foregone conclusion. As the trial unfolds, she seems more like the victim of overzealous prosecution, shady witnesses, and a hanging judge eager to end the trial and go on vacation, and a biased jury.
Most of Iphigenia occurs in a courtroom in Queens. Malcolm begins as Borukhova is about to take the stand, which as any cop show fan knows is a bad idea. Ultimately, her testimony helps sway the jury to convict. Along the way, Malcolm disparages her fellow journalists and their profession, which she compares to beggars seeking alms. As she writes: “…Some journalists write extremely well. But the profession retains its transgressiveness. Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse. A trial offers unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness.”
Perhaps to distinguish her coverage from the tabloids, Malcolm supplements her courtroom reportage with interviews of key players, with special sensitivity paid to the victim’s family. Like Borukhova, they are Bukharan Jews, an insular immigrant community that struggles to preserve their traditions in modern America.
She also sprinkles her prose with similes. A witness regards a lawyer “like a mouse looking at a cobra.” Attorneys are like “crows imperturbably looking down on carrion.” Borukhova is “a captive barbarian princess in a Roman triumphal procession.” And in a poetic set piece, she pauses to describe a courthouse mural, a “mad allegory” of justice.
Throughout, she seizes upon the literary aspects of the trial. Along the way, she name-checks Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Nabokov, which makes sense given that the key players in the trial speak Russian. She also refers to a scenario in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, characters in King Lear and Jane Eyre, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Borukhova’s dead husband, and the Dickensian ordeal of her daughter.
In the Greek myth, Iphigenia volunteered to sacrifice her own life to fulfill a prophecy and resolve a dispute between her parents. In Malcolm’s account, the Iphigenia figure is Michelle, a sacrificial pawn in her parents’ “psychodrama,” an innocent witness to violence, buffeted by the bureaucracy of the law and social services, yet still loyal enough to visit her mom behind bars. Malcolm offers no speculation as to what the future holds for Michelle. It seems likely that the rest of her life will be another kind of trial.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Incognito, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. His review of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Life on a Tough New Planet was featured last week on Word Press’s “Freshly Pressed.” He reads books almost as often as he watches cop shows.