Most novels about crimes focus on killers or cops or, less often, on victims and survivors. Jill Ciment’s compulsively readable noir novel The Body in Question takes a different tack, telling the tale of jurors on a sensational murder trial.
This is the seventh novel by Ciment, who is a professor at the University of Florida. (Her 2009 novel, Heroic Measures, was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and the basis for the movie 5 Flights Up.) This book’s lean style and cool tone shape an unsentimental story with unexpected depths.
The Body in Question is told from the point of view of a woman called for jury duty in a place that sounds a lot like Gainesville. For the first part of the book, we know her as C-2, her juror number. She’s a photographer with a distinguished career behind her. Most people think of jury duty as a chore, but to her it’s a welcome break from caring for her husband. When they met, she was 24, and the age gap between them — he was 58 and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist — was part of the thrill.
Now, she still loves him, but she’s 52 and he’s 86 and in failing health. When juror F-17, an anatomy professor a decade younger than she, starts flirting, she thinks “one last dalliance before she gets too old” might not be a bad thing. The jury is sequestered at a crummy Econo-Lodge off I-75, and C-2 and F-17 are soon sneaking into each other’s rooms at night.
During the day, they’re serving as jurors in the trial of a teenage girl accused of killing her 18-month-old brother by setting him on fire. Anca was adopted at age 5 from a Romanian orphanage; in court, she’s an unemotional blank. Much more vivid is her prettier, smarter twin sister, Stephana. The defense’s story is that Anca set the fire intending to rush back into the house and save the baby, in order to prove she loved him and her family.
It’s a high-profile trial. “The gallery,” Ciment writes, “is packed with press and seniors. C-2 had read somewhere that the Villages bus their citizens all over Central Florida to attend celebrity trials, a pastime more engrossing than shuffleboard.”
The more testimony she hears, the more questions C-2 has about Anca’s guilt. Not only is the trial complicated; so is what’s going on at the Econo-Lodge. C-2 thought it was a no-strings physical affair, but when even F-17′s description of how an autopsy is conducted becomes erotic as he outlines it on her body, it’s clear more is going on.
The stories of the trial and the jurors’ lives braid together and become even more complicated after judgment is passed, and it all turns shocking when the judge makes their identities public.
A short story by Patricia Highsmith plays a part in the trial, and it’s an appropriate shoutout. As Highsmith so often did, Ciment gives her story a series of wicked twists, some thrilling, some heart-wrenching. During the trial, the verdict and the aftermath, one question echoes: Can we kill someone we love? Don’t think it’s a simple answer.
The Body in Question
By Jill Ciment
Pantheon, 174 pages, $24.95
Meet the author
Jill Ciment will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading/.