Later, Malcolm interviews Joseph and Nalia Malakov, the brother and sister-in-law of the murder victim. Although they are a private family, Malcolm notes that they “evidently felt no impropriety in speaking unguardedly to a journalist.” She notes that, in speaking with her, the Malakovs held “the perhaps not so far-fetched belief that journalists are part of the criminal-justice system: small but necessary cogs in its machinery of retribution.” Her subjects see her role as something like that of a juror, or a judge—when in fact, in her view, she, like all journalists, is by her very nature biased and self-serving. Malcolm’s drawing the reader’s attention to this disconnect does not seem to alleviate the guilt—or at least the hesitation she feels about her dealings with the Malakovs—that she implicitly expresses here.

Even by hinting at her ambivalence, though, she is subverting the traditional journalistic role in society as she explains it. That role is to bolster the illusion that justice is served by a neutral court system, and to help create the tidy narratives that real life so seldom offers. “Journalism is an enterprise of reassurance,” she writes—reassurance that the good guys always win while the bad guys are punished. “We do not wring our hands and rend our clothes over the senseless crimes and disasters that give us our subject. We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of certainty.”

“Connoisseurs of certainty”? Well, she cannot be accused of that, at least.

Malcolm may have told her editors that Iphigenia in Forest Hills would be a fascinating whodunit, played out as she watched from the courtroom benches—and her editors may have gone along with it, judging by the book’s jacket copy. (“‘She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.’ This is the enigma at the heart of Janet Malcolm’s riveting new book about a murder trial in the insular Bukharan-Jewish community of Forest Hills, Queens.”) But to say that her book is about a murder trial is to say that The Journalist and the Murderer is about a libel suit. The plot is practically irrelevant. Or, at least, this murder trial is interchangeable with any murder trial Malcolm may have chosen to visit for a few months.

Depending on what readers are expecting, they may be either frustrated by the slow pulse of the murder trial as it proceeds throughout the book, or they may be fascinated, as Malcolm is, by the unanswerable questions at its heart. If readers go in knowing that Malcolm herself will be the most intriguing character of the bunch, and that the drama of her own internal experience of the trial will be much more engaging than what transpires in the courtroom, then they won’t be disappointed.

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[Update: this post originally listed a reporter from the Newark Star-Ledger as one of Malcolm’s compatriots at the trial. In fact, the reporter was from the Forest Hills Ledger, in Queens. The error has been corrected.]


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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner