The Body in Question by Jill Ciment
Published by Pantheon Books
Publication date: June 11, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues, Suspense
Standard courtroom drama fiction has never been a favorite of mine, but I recently read two novels that put such an interesting spin on them I’m changing my mind a bit. I’m calling them ‘courtroom drama plus’ because both came at the genre from an unusual perspective. The first was Miracle Creek, which I loved and the second is a new novel called The Body in Question. The twist here is that Jill Ciment writes it from the vantage point of one of the seven jurors and, in doing so changes the focus from the Court TV theatrics that have always been visible to what happens behind the curtain.
Hannah is the juror. She’s 52, with an 86-year-old ailing husband. She briefly toys with the idea of using him as a way to get excused, but then decides the time away, with only herself to care for, might be nice. There is also a juror she flirted with before they were chosen. Soon after the trial begins, they become lovers, but do not discuss the trial. Later, after the trial ends the jury is put on trial in the court of public opinion because of their decision. The judge also rules that their identities can be revealed and things go downhill from there.
Generally, courtroom drama fiction has a lot of drama, right? Twists, surprises, lots of suspense. This isn’t the case in The Body in Question. Yes, the very nature of the case is sensational—adopted twin sisters, one of whom is autistic and is accused of murdering their baby brother—but what stands out in the novel is the tedium of juror life. A dreary motel, unhealthy meals, no communication devices, no television, no privacy, and prolonged contact with people you probably don’t want to know.
I’m not being flip about the importance of being a juror, nor is Ciment. Writing The Body in Question in such a detached tone is clever because it reads like a court transcript. Every one of Hannah’s thoughts and decisions is factually recounted. Her choice to have an affair? Well, at 52, it might be her last chance to be desired, it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and no one would know. It’s the same with the trial itself and the decisions made by the lawyers and the court. The reader is sequestered in this isolated world that vacillates between issues of life and death and being grateful there was a vegetarian option for dinner.
Unlike most capital murder trials, The Body in Question is brief and to the point. In just 175 pages Ciment cleanly presents everything as evidence, without judgement attached, leaving the reader to render a verdict. Mine is: Thrilling reading, highly recommended.