Non-fiction – hardcover; Yale University Press; 155 pages; 2011.
I do like a good narrative non-fiction book that looks at the darker side of humanity — and Janet Malcolm‘s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is one of those books that could best be described as my cup of tea.
The book’s title has its roots in Greek mythology. Depending on which version of the myth you hear — and there are several — Iphigenia was the innocent daughter that Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to sacrifice to appease Artemis, whom he had offended. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, was so upset by her daughter’s death that she kills her husband as an act of vengeance.
But in Malcolm’s true-life tale, “Iphigenia” is a four-year-old child that is “sacrificed” as part of a divorce settlement. The father, having won custody, is later killed — by a hit man. The book does not focus on the finer details of the custody dispute, but on the abhorrent murder which happened following it and then the machinations of the subsequent trial.
The case goes something like this. A 34-year-old mother and physician, Mazoltuv Borukhova, is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband, Daniel Malakov, a well respected orthodontist. The “hit” occurred in broad daylight, at the gates of a playground in the Queens district of New York, within feet of the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Michelle. The motivation for the crime is claimed to be vengeance: a month earlier Malakov had been granted custody of Michelle, despite claims by Dr Borukhova that her husband sexually abused their daughter.
This is a murky case — Malcolm describes it as an enigma, because Dr Borukhova “couldn’t have done it and she must have done it” — but the author’s focus is not so much on the events leading up to it, nor the motivations, but the way in which justice is played out in the courtroom.
Most of us understand the adversarial system of justice in which the prosecution presents the evidence and the defence disputes it. But few of us have seen it in action firsthand. Malcolm gives us a ringside seat as Borukhova and her hitman, Mikhail Mallayev, are put on trial at Queens Supreme Court in 2009 and dissects what is happening with rare insight.
“A trial is a contest between competing narratives”, she writes.
If any profession (apart from the novelist’s) is in the business of making things up, it is the profession of the trial lawyer. The “evidence” in trials is the thread out of which lawyers spin their tales of guilt or innocence.
This evidence, she suggests, is often highly malleable. The likelihood of a successful prosecution also rests on jury selection — which isn’t always impartial — and which judge presides over the case. In this instance, the trial judge, Robert Hanophy, had such a long track record of rarely acquitting anyone on the stand that he had been nicknamed “Hang ’em Hanophy” (Malcolm’s portrait of him is not particularly flattering, and she even goes so far as to call him a “petty tyrant”.)
Of course, how the jury — and the media — perceive the accused has a role to play, too. Here’s Malcolm’s description of Borukhova:
She was a small, thin woman of arresting appearance. Her features were delicate, and her skin had a gray pallor. At the hearings, she was dressed in a mannish black jacket and a floor-length black skirt, and she wore her long, dark, tightly curled hair hanging down her back, bound by a red cord. She looked rather like a nineteenth-century woman-student revolutionary. For the trial proper (perhaps on advice), she changed her appearance. She put her hair up and wore light-coloured jackets and patterned long skirts. She looked pretty and charming, if undernourished.
What makes this book so readable is Malcolm’s narrative. This is not a dry, coolly distant analysis: it’s raw and immediate and feels all the more compelling for it.
Reporting the case for the New Yorker, where Malcolm is a staff writer, she includes her own views and reactions to the events happening in the court room. At at one point she even inserts herself in the story — “something I have never done before as a journalist” — by alerting the prosecution to the fact that Michelle’s court-appointed guardian, David Schnall, had admitted some rather kooky ideas in an interview he granted her (one of his ideas was the the world was a “place of hidden evil under the control of a Communist-like system” among other rants).
Malcolm also puts her journalistic skills to good use by befriending Borukhova’s family, not an easy thing to do given they belong to a rather closed, insular community of Bukharan Jews living in Forest Hills, New York. (Her visits with them are highly reminiscent of Helen Garner’s visits with Jo Cinque’s family in Joe Cinque’s Consolation — once she wins their trust, they reveal a lot of pain, confusion, anger and bitterness.)
But as much as I enjoyed this book, it felt too short — the ending is especially abrupt — and there are some aspects that could have been fleshed out. Still, it’s a slightly unnerving read, and I came away from it, not quite sure whether justice had, indeed, been done. And I rather suspect that’s exactly how Malcolm feels about the case, too…