Sunday, 14 August 2011

Penguin no. 730: Verdict of Twelve
by Raymond Postgate

Victoria Atkins, once she had settled down to consider the question, knew at once what she thought. For what is it that makes the average man or woman unwilling to convict another for murder? Most usually, a surprise and disbelief at the action itself. It seems to any peaceable and quiet person so unnatural and improbable an act. He pictures to himself the process of laying poison, or of driving in a knife, and at once an immense repulsion seizes him. He knows that he could not do it, and he does not believe that the ordinary person in the dock has done it. Give him one-third of a chance and he will say 'Not guilty,' because the alleged act in itself seems preposterous. It is not done; it does not happen; it is not part of the real world of newspapers and going to the office in the train. Any other explanation is to be preferred.

This 1940s mystery novel is so compelling that I read it one sitting, unable to put it aside. It is the story of a murder trial, but with the focus on the twelve members of the jury and the subjective nature of their assessments of the evidence. Each interpretation is necessarily conditioned on the experiences, biases and aspirations of the individual jurors. And yet as interesting as these reflections are, it is actually the narrative, and the way the story is structured, which makes it truly compelling. The author creates an atmosphere of tension that is maintained until the final pages. The reader only knows slightly more than the jurors, enough to know when their interpretations are suspect, but not enough to know whether their overall conclusions are right or wrong. The truth is revealed only after the verdict has been reached.

The woman in the dock is an unsympathetic character. She is haughty and proud, and that has left her lonely, bitter, and unhappy in her middle-age, without friends and without relatives that she will condescend to know. She has two recreations: drinking port to excess, and subtly tormenting the young and sickly orphaned child of whom she has managed to make herself guardian. He stands to inherit a fortune; she will be the benefactor if he dies early in life. The power to control the daily life of this 11 year old boy is the only one she has and she exercises it to thwart and isolate him, while justifying to herself that such strictures are essential for a growing child. When he develops an unusual affection for his pet rabbit, the reader is shown how she manipulates events to ensure he can be denied the rabbit too, destroying it herself. In his resulting hysteria we see the depth of the hatred he feels towards her. He dies a few days later.

As with any trial, the jurors only hear a sample of these and other facts, always skewed by the (not always disinterested) perspectives of  the witnesses and lawyers.  Each juror is left to infer what actually happened by completing the narrative from these distorted clues, and they are shown making their inferences based on their own values or beliefs or experiences, and not from any objective assessment of the evidence. Some make no inferences at all, guided solely by an emotional reaction. Another dynamic comes into play during the deliberations in the jury room as these strangers are compelled to interact and reach a unanimous decision. Some jurors feel the need to dominate, or to oppose, or to bully, or to conform: and there is the man who must always agree with a pretty woman, and another who is sure that women are always wrong.

This is an exploration of biases inherent in a system involving people. And the author seems determined to suggest that education and social status do not protect jurors from bias or being wrong: the most highly educated juror here is certain of his own superior insight but in the context of this story he is mistaken, let down by his lack of experience with ordinary people. Instead, it is a woman at the opposite end of the social spectrum who has the clearest understanding of this crime. There is much to enjoy in this book including a snapshot of contemporary England captured in the sketched biographies of the jurors, and wider references to the prevailing attitudes and problems. But it was the slowly revealed mystery around which the trial was conducted which was its true strength.


  1. A jury room is a fascinating subject. I've never done jury service myself, but my husband has, and he said that there were all types of personality there. I am squeamish about books involving the mistreatment of children so I might have to give this one a miss.

  2. Having done jury service myself, having gone through some of the emotions described, having met some of those characters, and having wrestled with some of my own bias and perspective, this sounds very familiar. I look forward to my next jury experience with some trepidation ... perhaps I should read this too.

  3. Hi Joanne,

    I agree that the mistreatment of children is difficult to deal with in a novel, but it serves its purpose here in that it is the hatred that you feel towards this appalling woman which heightens the tension during the final section of the book covering the trial and jury deliberations. I'm not sure if any other misuse of power would have triggered such a strong emotional reaction.

    And Brett,

    I encourage you to read it. Perhaps it doesn't quite reach the heights of The Last Tresilians, but it is an outstanding mystery novel with an original premise, and some interesting observations on the times in which it is set. I believe they made a movie as well.



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