Early in this startling account of a murder trial, veteran New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm describes the judge as possessing "the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate".
Known as "Hang 'em Hanophy", he is depicted as being consistently prejudiced in favour of the prosecution. At the conclusion of the trial, he ignores a request for a brief adjournment due to an impending judicial vacation. "I'm going to be on the beach sipping pina coladas," Hanophy told the defence attorney.
Another factor that skewed the trial was the deeply alien background of the protagonists, in particular Mazoltuv Borukhova, a 35-year-old doctor accused of arranging the murder of her estranged husband Daniel Malakov. Like Mikhail Mallayev, the alleged assassin, the couple were Bukharans, members of an isolated sect of orthodox Jews from Central Asia. Recently arrived in New York from Samarkand, Borukhova in court "looked like a captive barbarian princess in a Roman triumphal procession."
Malcolm's sympathies – and those of the reader – are with Borukhova, especially when we hear of her statements that Malakov sexually molested their daughter Michelle and physically abused her. These allegations did not emerge in court: "He was not on trial – she was." Only on page 59 do we discover that there had been 91 telephone calls between Borukhova and Mallayev in the three weeks preceding the murder. These were explained as "doctor-patient calls" arising from the heart condition of Mallayev's wife, but the prosecution tore the physician apart.
As Borukhova heads ineluctably for incarceration, Malcolm becomes increasingly involved with the case. She becomes a participant by revealing the unstable mental state of a child psychologist, who gave a report to the court. At times the narrative is confusing – a list of dramatis personae would be useful – but her book is a passionate, incredulous indictment of the American legal system and its brutal bureaucracy.