The One with the Bukharan Murder in Queens

Janet Malcolm, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Anatomy of a Murder Trial (2011)

I am fond of the book for all the wrong reasons: because I am a huge fan of Janet Malcolm, because I bought this book during my February trip to London on an afternoon bookshop spree with lovely Marina Sofia, because it was quick and easy to read while retaining a pretty intelligent premise.

That said, people who haven’t read any of Janet Malcolm books should be warned not to start with this one, since it’s not her best*. Her account of a real-life murder trial that took place in the Bukharan (Russian) orthodox Jewish community of New York (in Queens to be precise) does not feel quite put together.

Janet Malcolm’s favorite themes revolve around ambiguities of people’s memories and appreciations of events, around the inherent bias that people bring to judgment. Impartial justice, presumption of innocence, fair judges are therefore ideal concepts that come  imperfectly to real life. In this case, so many things went wrong that Janet Malcolm seems to side with the accused party: the jury didn’t like the accused party because they disliked her aloofness and distance and assumed it was smugness and deceit. The judge rushed the trial. The defendant’s lawyer didn’t play his cards well.

As often in Malcolm’s books, nobody comes out particularly likeable. The Iphigenia in the story is Michelle, a four-year-old stuck in a legal dispute between her parents. Her mother is accused of being overbearing, her father of having had improper conduct and sexual abuse. As the law fails to resolve the divorce dispute, things escalate and the child is taken away from her mother. In cold-blooded revenge, the mother then convinces a relative to shoot her husband to death. At least, that’s what the prosecution said during the trial.

Janet Malcolm very much doubts that this is the whole truth. She makes it clear that the judge wasn’t fair to the accused party (the shocking bit being that he had booked a cruise to the Caribbean and hurried the defense to present their case overnight so that he could leave for holidays on time!!). But she doesn’t really come up with an alternate story for the case, so I was a bit let down and frustrated at the end of this short book.

Still, the people descriptions of Janet Malcolm are still amazing and make it a worthy read. They are quite dry and precise: you “get” someone through tiny gestures and expressions. Particularly bone-chilling is the painting of Mr. Schnall, little Michelle’s law-appointed guardian, who was strongly set against her mother from the very start, and who never seems to care for the child’s interests.

*I’d say that Janet Malcolm’s readers should probabmy start with her classic Journalist and the Assassin, or with The Silent Woman, on Sylvia Plath and her biographers.

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