Even if the crime rate in New York City had not dropped over the last few decades to a level that makes Broadway feel more like Main Street, the murder of Daniel Malakov, an orthodontist shot at a Queens playground in 2007, would have been notable. Malakov and his estranged wife, both doctors, were immigrants from Uzbekistan who lived among a tightly knit community of Bukharan Jews, a group known for their secrecy and impenetrability to outsiders. The couple were embroiled in a tense divorce and custody battle over their four-year-old daughter. And the murder was carried out in front of the child, whom Malakov had brought to the playground for a visit with her mother.
As the story unfolded over the next few months, the details only became more gripping. The mother, with the improbable name of Mazoltuv (translated as “congratulations” or “good luck”) Borukhova, was charged with hiring a hit man, Mikhail Mallayev, to kill Malakov in order to regain custody of their child. A makeshift silencer with Mallayev’s fingerprints on it was found at the scene, and an eyewitness identified him. During the week before the murder, Mallayev and Borukhova had spoken by phone more than 90 times, according to cell phone records. The clues “seemed to align so well that [the case] would not even have made a good TV show,” the Times reported. “Bingo.” Both defendants were convicted in March 2009, in a trial that lasted six weeks. They were sentenced to life in prison.
The story might have ended there. But Janet Malcolm, one of the most intelligent and thoughtful writers working today, decided to cover the trial. Malcolm’s subjects have ranged widely over the years, from psychoanalysis (In the Freud Archives) to biography (The Silent Woman) to literary criticism (Reading Chekhov). In each of these works, writing with consummate elegance and a sense of narrative pace that enlivens even the most esoteric details, Malcolm investigates a story that comes back in the end to illustrate her constant fascination with life’s essential ambiguities. After all, the journalist—like the biographer or the psychoanalyst—can have only secondhand knowledge of other people: All her information comes from their answers to her questions, and her interpretations of those answers. Malcolm eschews the pretense of certainty that most journalists adopt; instead, her process of probing the ambiguities, of investigating exactly how much she knows and does not know, becomes crucial to her narratives. “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties,” she wrote in Two Lives, her recent book about Gertrude Stein’s life and work. “Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best.”
In Iphigenia in Forest Hills, her deeply disconcerting new study of the Borukhova trial, Malcolm brings that ambiguity to the courtroom. The book, an expanded version of a long article that ran in The New Yorker last spring, is not an exposé of the flawed criminal justice system, although Malcolm does reveal some disturbing ways in which bias, unconscious or otherwise, may have influenced the trial. (“We take sides as we take breaths,” she writes early on.) Rather, it is an investigation, again, of the limits of possible knowledge and the infinite variety of narratives that can be imposed on a random sequence of events. Malcolm knows that she is not immune: She recognizes her own bias in favor of Borukhova, whom she at one point describes as looking “regal … like a captive barbarian princess in a Roman triumphal procession.” How, she wonders, could this unlikely defendant have murdered her own husband? “Everything one knew about life and about people cried out against the notion that this gentle, cultivated woman was the mastermind of a criminal plot. … She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” There is no “bingo,” as in the Times’ easy formulation.
Malcolm doesn’t present any new evidence or offer an alternate explanation of who shot Malakov, although it is still possible that something might come to light: There was never any proof of a financial connection between the defendants, and the case is currently under appeal. Her technique, rather, is to examine the known evidence from all sides, spotlighting the complications that the rules of the courtroom insist on flattening out. A particularly damning piece of evidence was a taped in-person conversation between Borukhova and Mallayev, anodyne except for the last words: “Will you make me happy?” he is said to have asked her, with the reply, “Yes.” But the translator, who also worked for the FBI, conceded under cross-examination that, among other mistakes, he could have misunderstood the recording, which was of poor quality. Instead of the non sequitur padayesh, “Will you make me happy?”, the word in question may well have been the more logical obraduyesh, “Are you getting off?” The pair happened to be traveling together in a car that had reached its destination when the conversation was taped. (In one of the book’s many wonderful formulations, Malcolm writes that “a successful cross-examination is like a turn of the roulette wheel that restores a lost fortune.”)
The details of the custody case are particularly difficult to reconcile. Was Malakov, whom Borukhova accused of beating her and sexually molesting their daughter, a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde figure—kind and pleasant to his patients and a horror at home? Or is Borukhova, described by her former in-laws and other acquaintances as “unnatural” and “abnormal,” the crazy one, poisoning her daughter’s mind against her father so that she feared to visit him? Malcolm is tough on the law professionals who were charged with protecting the little girl’s interests, exposing the delusional mindset of her court-appointed “law guardian” and condemning the family-court judge who decided, apparently willy-nilly, to award custody to the father. (Malakov was quoted as saying that the girl ought to remain with her mother; he had petitioned only for one or two unsupervised visits per week.) When the little girl was transferred, screaming, from her mother’s arms to her father’s days before the murder, was it an act of mercy or torture? Part of what makes Malcolm’s account so unsettling is that it is impossible to know.
We are somehow programmed to desire certainty. The knowledge that something is unknown and may forever remain unknown is among the most frustrating things that a person can experience. One way we avoid confrontation with the unknown is to fall back into lazy assumptions. The jurors Malcolm interviewed express a kind of complacent gullibility, a readiness to accept the easiest answer to a question rather than probe further into what they might not already know. “Why would a judge [award custody to the father] if there wasn’t a good reason for it?” “Why would [the translator] be working for the FBI if he didn’t know what he was doing?” “Why would they use [fingerprinting technology] if it wasn’t accurate?” Malcolm can’t answer these questions, but in the rigor of her investigation she reaches a different kind of truth.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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