JANET MALCOLM'S Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, an expansion of a 2010 New Yorker essay, explores Mazoltuv Borukhova’s trial for the murder of her husband, Daniel Malatov. Malatov was brazenly assassinated in a Queens playground in 2007. The prosecution, which ultimately won the day, sending Borukhova to jail for life, argues that after losing a custody battle for her four-year-old daughter, Michele, Borukhova arranged to have her estranged husband killed. Malatov arrived at the playground to retrieve his daughter from her mother, and as Malatov and Borukhova swung their daughter playfully back and forth — Michele’s arms in her mother’s hands, her father supporting her lower body — a gunman approached the father and riddled him with bullets. The gunman then turned and walked calmly out of the park. The prosecution linked the triggerman, a family acquaintance named Mikhail Mallayav, to Borukhova through circumstantial evidence, most potently 90 phone calls between the two, some garbled recordings, and Mallayav’s receipt of some $40,000 in the period leading up to the murder, although that money was never directly linked to Borukhova.
From this brutal scenario, Malcolm spins a disquieting tale of the workaday criminal trial, where the court sanitizes and defines the chaotic humanness of crime. Courts do not tailor the law to the crime (though justice, like fine suits, surely gets fitted for those with means); they narrate actions, alleged or actual, into patterns that match ready-made legal categories. Certainty and simplicity triumph over ambiguity. Malcolm has written commandingly on such collisions in the past — most notably in The Journalist and the Murderer — and her skills seem perfectly suited to the task at hand in Iphigenia in Forest Hills.
But there’s a problem. It is unclear whether Borukhova refused to be interviewed or if Malcolm elected to embargo her, but the two never speak directly to one another. This lends Borukhova a strange… well, insalience. The Malcolmian tradition is voyeuristic, placing the reader on her shoulder as she coaxes her subjects into self-revelation, if not self-realization. The pleasure of reading Malcolm stems from her ability to render intimacy and peculiarity — individuals’ self-delusions, unconscious tells, and transparent evasions — with precision, extrapolating from the person bold, often aggressive cultural insights. But by not engaging directly with its central character, this book lacks a center of gravity.
In the masterful The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcom’s book about the writer Joe McGinnis, her subject, like Borukhova, proves elusive: when Malcolm spooks him during an interview McGinnis is lost to her. He realizes during the conversation that she has provoked him to “make such a spectacle of himself.” Spectacle is the point of journalism, and the fact that people open up so candidly to writers is exactly what McGinnis was hoping for when he was speaking with his subject, murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald ultimately didn’t like what was written and sued McGinnis for defamation. Murderer, in part, explores the ethics of insincerity. How much truth does a writer owe a source? The meeting between McGinnis and Malcolm is a brief, but ...