A Jury of Her Peers

"Trial by twelve good men and true... is a sound system."
- Colonel Arbuthnott (Murder on the Orient-Express, 1974, the movie adaptation)
Raymond Postgate (1896-1971) was from what I gathered a man of many talents when it came to wielding a pen, with an editorship and books on a wide variety of subjects adorning his résumé, including three full-length detective novels – of which Verdict of Twelve (1940) is a minor masterpiece.

As a committed socialist, Postgate was obviously using the popular detective story as a vehicle to examine human nature and voice social criticism, however, he did not completely abandon the detective story format in favor of characterization and you'll find at the core of this book a genuine mystery. The framing of this story is the trial of the draconian Mrs. Rosalie van Beer, who stands trial for the alleged poisoning of her 11-year-old ward, Philip Arkwright, with ivy dust and we witness this trial from the perspective of the twelve men and women of the jury who have to decide whether she's guilty of innocent.

Verdict of Twelve even begins with a series of character sketches of the jury members and this is a triumph of characterization, especially the one of Miss V.M. Atkins, who has a successful murder to her credit and her introduction is an inverted detective story within a mystery novel. You could easily lift this chapter from the book and it would stand on its own as a short story. It's also a delightful and fantastic departure from the more serious and soberly handled murder trial, in which Miss Atkins sets-up an ingenious and elaborate alibi-trick that could've been lifted from the pages of a Detective Conan story – and this is what made me instantly like Postgate as a mystery writer. I mean, here's a man who tried to write a detective story in a more serious vein by putting more emphasis on characterization, but nonetheless wedged a little side-puzzle between the pages that would have kept the likes Lt. Columbo busy for the better part of an hour.

However, the snapshots of Mrs. Morris, a Jewish woman whose husband was killed in the streets by racists, and the secretly gay Dr. Percival Holmes, a fat and eccentric scholar, who impressed me, at first sight, as a parody of the story book detective (not entirely unlike Dr. Bottwink from Cyril Hare's An English Murder, 1951), were far more impressive and disquieting. But perhaps I should give a short overview of the jury members as they were introduced to the reader in the dramatis personae:
Miss V.M. Atkins, crippled and malicious, with an undiscovered crime on her conscience.

A.G. Popesgrove, Thessalian foreman of the jury, who took his name from the telephone directory.

Dr. Percival Holmes, elderly, ill-mannered Greek scholar.

Mr. J.A. Stannard, a philosophical publican.

Mr. Edward Bryan, shop assistant and religious fanatic.

Mrs. Morris, a bitter victim of persecution.

Mr. E.O. George, the impatient Secretary of the National Union of Plasterers’ Labourers.

Mr. F.A.H. Allen, the most restless and happiest man on the jury.

Mr. D. Elliston Smith, a dull young man with misty thoughts or orgies.
Mr. Ivor. W. Drake, a second-rate actor.

Mr. G. Parham Groves, a gentleman traveling salesman.

Mr. H. Wilson, complacent editor of a small publication.
A nice lot, eh? These are the men and women who have decide over the fate of Mrs. Rosalie van Beer, but their backgrounds and personal prejudices makes it everything but an impartial jury and the fact that Van Beer is a thoroughly unlikable creature gives Sir Isambard Burns, leading Counsel for the Defense, quite a job in presenting a different picture of his client. After all, this is a woman who took pleasure in thwarting and embarrassing her ward, even brutally murdering his rabbit in the gas oven of the kitchen, which was for some jurors enough to mark her as a murderess. But the representatives of the Crown and Defense manage to present two conflicting, but convincing, stories of what really happened and it's up to jury to decide who's the closest to the truth.

The final postscript gives us an account of what actually happened and it's a surprising one, even if it's a bit commonplace and unexciting – almost a deliberate letdown but it perfectly fits everything we have previously learned of the case. Postgate setout to write a detective story about real people and he succeeded without forgetting that he was also penning a detective story. The result is a very unusual, but satisfying, mystery novel which I recommend without hesitation. 

No comments:

Post a Comment