In her account of the trial of a doctor accused in a N.Y. murder-for-hire plot, Malcolm evokes a sense of Greek tragedy amid frightening flaws in the legal system
Janet Malcolm’s new book, “Iphigenia in Forest Hills,’’ is a slim little volume. If it is a cold night and you don’t mind a few wrinkles, you can read the entire thing in the bath. If it is not a cold night, it will feel like one by the time you finish.
Subtitled “Anatomy of a Murder Trial,’’ Malcolm’s book chronicles the fate of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a 35-year-old doctor and a member of the Bukharan Jewish sect who stands accused of hiring an assassin to kill her ex-husband, Daniel Malakov. On the morning of Oct. 28, 2007, Malakov was shot to death in a park in Queens, N.Y., in front of his and Borukhova’s 4-year-old daughter.
In the hands of most other writers, an account of the resulting court case would be a work of true crime, emphasis on “crime.’’ In the hands of Malcolm, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and author of nine previous books, the emphasis is on “true.’’ This will not surprise readers of her earlier works: “truth,’’ in scare quotes, is Malcolm’s foremost preoccupation. In “Iphigenia in Forest Hills’’ it is not so much the alleged killers who are on trial but the trial itself, charged here with falsely claiming to reveal the real story.
Spoiler alert: The verdict is guilty. Malcolm shows us what happens when the abstract ideals of the law are applied, as they always are, by human beings. We meet one judge who, acting out of incompetence or malice, makes an inexplicable and terrible child-custody decision. Another proves less interested in serving justice than in wrapping up proceedings in time for his Caribbean vacation. A lawyer who, on the stand, appears to be “intelligent and well-spoken’’ turns out to be both negligent and delusional. (Alerted by Malcolm to this lawyer’s paranoid fantasies, the defense attorney asks to return him to the stand for further questioning. The judge, one eye on his vacation, says no.) All told, it’s such a damning portrait of American jurisprudence that Malcolm scarcely need editorialize. As lawyers would say, res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself.
Other elements of this story, by contrast, are notably mute. Malcolm is not Truman Capote; her mission is neither to give voice to the suspected killers nor to animate the Bukharan community. If Capote’s point of reference was the novel, Malcolm’s is the Greek tragedy. In fact, theater does double duty in this book. First, it provides a governing metaphor for the trial, from the title to the final sentence. (In Greek legend and literature, Iphigenia is the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. After her father plots to sacrifice her, he is killed, in revenge, by her mother.) Second, it provides a literary model. There is something almost Aristotelian in Malcolm’s close focus: The bulk of the book is set in the courtroom; the mise-en-scene is minimal; and most of the action belongs to the characters. When she writes, “During the unshackling, Borukhova always looked over her right shoulder; [alleged hit man Mikhail] Mallayev looked straight ahead,’’ the lines have the spare, straightforward efficacy of stage directions.
This sparseness is characteristic of Malcolm’s style, which, like electrocution, delivers maximum impact for minimum contact. I would apologize for using violent analogies, except that it’s nearly impossible to review this book without them. Almost without exception, the words that come to mind to describe Malcolm’s prose could apply to a morgue and its ambient temperature: Think coolness, ice, razors, daggers, dissection, evisceration, dismemberment. Reading her, you have the sensation of encountering a mind at once incredibly blunt and terrifically precise: a sledgehammer that could debone a shad.
That rare and strange effect could only be produced by an intellect as formidable as Malcolm’s: What is subtle to others is self-evident to her. This, too, contributes to the aura of Greek tragedy. The author, a lowercase god, looks down from above, sees all, and is torn between mirth and scorn. The effect is one of devastating clarity — although also, sometimes, of withering condescension, the one unpalatable feature in otherwise extraordinary prose.
And yet, for all this chilly remove, Malcolm’s writing is fundamentally humane. As she tells it, the tragedy of “Iphigenia in Forest Hills’’ begins when Borukhova ventures “out of the merciful messiness of private life into the pitiless orderliness of the legal system.’’ “Pitiless orderliness’’ is also a good description of Malcolm’s mind, but there’s a crucial difference. The orderliness of the legal system is arbitrary and sham, rigid rules imposed on some people for the convenience of others; simple stories imposed on messy realities for selfish ends, whether lucre, power, or “closure.’’
Malcolm’s orderliness, by contrast, is that of a physicist: She sees all the forces at work, and, without simplifying, sums them. Set against her moral and intellectual lucidity, those who regard themselves as righteous come off looking malicious, pompous, dangerous, or dumb. “Your husband lies in his natural grave,’’ Judge Hanophy tells the defendant at the end of the trial, “and you are about to enter your eight-by-eight above-ground interment where you will spend the rest of your natural life.’’ Thus is Borukhova sentenced — and thus is Hanophy indicted. Like most people who burn with the fire of truth, he runs hot, and ultimately consumes those around him. Malcolm runs cold: the temperature at which things keep.
Kathryn Schulz is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.’’ She can be reached at kathryn@being wrongbook.com.