The older I get (and possibly because of the fiction I choose to read), the less I trust the jury system. Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve might have put the last nail in the coffin. This twisty, brilliant short novel (originally published in 1940) follows a group of jurors who are tasked with finding an accused murderer guilty or innocent. As readers, we know more than they do, so watching them deliberate is an absolute torment—but in a way that makes me want to get other readers to read this book just for the joy of watching them get all the way to the end and hearing them yell when they figure out what really happened.
Verdict of Twelve begins with a long series of introductions to the members of the jury. Almost a third of the book passes in a series of biographies about the ten men and two women selected to serve on the journey. Some of them are criminals themselves. Others have class and even religious prejudices that we just know will sway their decision more than any evidence the lawyers might present. The more I read about them, the more I worried about the makeup of real juries. Every member must bring their own experiences and prejudices with them. While a “jury of peers” is supposed to ensure fairness, I wonder if such a thing is even possible.
After the jury introductions, we get a short interlude that sets up the case the jurors will hear. An unpleasant woman named Rosalie van Beer is accused of poisoning her hated young nephew. The loathing in the two’s relationship certainly helped me make up my mind about what happened—which just goes to show how easily a potential juror can be persuaded by the way information is presented. After all this set up, we briefly see Rosalie’s lawyers work out a way to defend the woman. Part of their strategy is to keep her out of the dock, because she has a very hard time controlling her temper. When she gets going, it’s hard not to hate the woman.
Once the trial is over, the jury takes off to deliberate in a series of highly uncomfortable scenes. All of the jurors’ prejudices, backstories, and agendas come into play. The evidence is almost an afterthought. But then, that’s what you get when you round up a bunch of “peers” to try a case. I don’t know that experts in criminology, forensic science, etc. would do any better, because they’re not infallible either. There must be a better system, but I’m stumped about what that system might look like.
I really enjoyed Verdict of Twelve precisely because it’s given me so much food for thought. (I always love books that I can’t stop thinking about after the last page.) I also marvel at the skill in how Postgate constructed the story. Verdict of Twelve makes us an unofficial thirteenth juror. As with any mystery, the reader is left to try and work out if Rosalie is guilty or not. Like the lawyers, the novel gives us a particular version of events. We don’t have all the facts when we sit down with the jury to deliberate. We’ve also got our own backstories and prejudices to contend with. Even though it tormented me (in the best way, to be honest), I loved this brief novel and am very glad the publishers are rescuing it from obscurity.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.