Frontier Psychiatrist

Murder She Wrote – A Review of Iphigenia in Forest Hills

Posted on: July 11, 2011

Mazoltuv Borukhova

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.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills

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.

Advertisements

4 Responses to "Murder She Wrote – A Review of Iphigenia in Forest Hills"

[…] tragedy, we are more understanding and bloodthirsty when it comes to our music tastes (and books). Somehow, violent and anti-social behavior is much more appealing when it comes with a sick beat. […]

Malcolm actually mentions Iphigenia explicitly. I just finished the book, where I’d marked the passage on Page 16: “(Leventhal’s) narrative now had its mythic underpinning. It was as inevitable that Borukhova … would revenge herself on Daniel for the loss of Michelle as that Clytemnestra would revenge herself on Agamemnon for the loss of Iphigenia.”

[…] is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His book reviews for FP include The Central Park Five, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. He studied Japanese in college and worked in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Us:

Send Us Your Music:

Staff

L.V. Lopez, Publisher
Keith Meatto, Editor-In-Chief
Peter Lillis, Managing Editor
Freya Bellin
Andrew Hertzberg
Franklin Laviola
Gina Myers
Jared Thomas
Jordan Mainzer

Contributors

James Tadd Adcox
Michael Bakkensen
Sophie Barbasch
John Raymond Barker
Jeffery Berg
P.J. Bezanson
Lee Bob Black
Jessica Blank
Mark Blankenship
Micaela Blei
Amy Braunschweiger
Jeb Brown
Jamie Carr
Laura Carter
Damien Casten
Krissa Corbett Kavouras
Jillian Coneys
Jen Davis
Chris Dippel
Claire Dippel
Amy Elkins
Mike Errico
Alaina Ferris
Lucas Foglia
Fryd Frydendahl
Tyler Gilmore
Tiffany Hairston
Django Haskins
Todd Hido
Paul Houseman
Susan Hyon
Michael Itkoff
Eric Jensen
David S. Jung
Eric Katz
Will Kenton
Michael Kingsbaker
Steven Klein
Katie Kline
Anna Kushner
Jim Knable
Jess Lacher
Chris Landriau
Caitlin Leffel
David Levi
Daniel F. Levin
Carrie Levy
Jim Lillis
Sophie Lyvoff
Max Maddock
Bob McGrory
Chris Lillis Meatto
Mark Meatto
Kevin Mueller
Chris Q. Murphy
Gina Myers
Tim Myers
Alex Nackman
Michael Nicholoff
Elisabeth Nicholson
Nicole Pettigrew
Allyson Paty
Dana Perry
Jared R. Pike
Mayumi Shimose Poe
Marisa Ptak
Sarah Robbins
Anjoli Roy
Beeb Salzer
Terry Selucky
Serious Juice
David Skeist
Suzanne Farrell Smith
Amy Stein
Jay Tarbath
Christianne Tisdale
Phillip Toledano
Joe Trapasso
Sofie van Dam
Jeff Wilser
Susan Worsham
Khaliah Williams
David Wilson
James Yeh
Bernard Yenelouis
Wayan Zoey

Listening To:

Sons of Dionysus


A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.