Having learnt from past experience that if there is something I particularly want to fail at in the year, I should make a resolution to do it, I have avoided the formation of any firm plans or goals for 2018, whether to do with life in general or reading in particular. But I have formed a vague intention of doing a fair amount of rereading, for reasons of both economic prudence and the desire to see what depths or new perspectives a second impression might add.
‘Verdict of Twelve’ is a book I first read several years ago, partly through vaguely having heard it was good, partly because Bagpuss is dear to my heart (Raymond Postgate> begat Oliver Postgate >begat oodles of enchanting children’s TV). I was struck at the time by the novel structure and now, after the consumption of many, many more mysteries, it still stands out as being fresh and distinctive.
The book follows the progress of a murder case being tried. Rather than begin with the particular murder in question, we are introduced, one by one, to the jurors in the case, some quite briefly, others in greater depth. They come from wildly differing social backgrounds, some quite bleak though portrayed without sentimentality; few of them are happy; many of them are unlikeable; but all are treated as individuals and with a certain amount of dignity.
These vignettes serve, both as a commentary on the country as a whole and as providing some idea of the state of mind and prejudices that each juror will bring to the case.
The trial itself is that of Rosalie Van Beer, a woman disdained by the family she married into but too ambitious of ‘higher’ circles to be able to maintain her old friendships and unabashed slide into alcoholism (the alcoholism remains, but is respectably squashed and hidden). She nobly takes over guardianship of her nephew, Philip, on the death of his parents; a responsibility which comes with the residency of a very large house.
Neither nephew nor aunt are enamoured of each other and their relationship is marked by frustration and overwrought tendencies on the part of the boy and a subconscious revelling in power and suppression on Rosalie’s part that she believes to be strictly duty. When Philip is taken ill and subsequently dies, Rosalie’s inheritance of a large fortune, along with other suspicious circumstances, leads to her being indicted for his murder. But there are other possible explanations and prosecution and defense vie with each other for the upper hand while the jury make their assessments of the case.
I enjoyed this one just as much in rereading it as I did the first time and noticed a couple of small extra details this time around, like the way in which Arthur Popesgrove’s adopted Christian name appears frequently as a middle name for other characters, reinforcing his choice of it to project Englishness.
Most of the characters had realistic flaws and good qualities, there was much quiet humour and a general humanity shone through, despite the wretchedness of many of the stories. The way in which each character’s leanings towards guilty and not guilty were formed and, in some cases, swayed at the end was nicely done: suggesting that facts tend to be filtered through mindset and experience.
The ending is also satisfying, with the jury finally coming to a verdict which is, arguably, the correct one given the case they were offered: whether justice is thereby done, is ultimately left to the reader.