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.]