In The Verdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate lays bare the awful truth that our precious judicial system is based on a myth. As the bored Clerk of Assize begins to swear in the jury for a murder trial, we are given a glimpse into the past and present of “twelve good men and true” who will decide the fate of Rosalie van Beer, widow, who stands accused of murder. Hidden behind the seemingly innocuous faces lie violence, intrigue, obsession, anxiety, fear and doubt.
To add to the confusion, Postgate relates the tale of the death from the points of view of the various characters, who all possess quirks of personality that call into question their motivation if not their sanity. Add in the narrow, purposeful focus of the counsel for the defence and the reader soon begins to wonder if anything approaching the truth can ever be reached with such ill assorted players.
Raymond Postgate, father of Oliver Postgate who wrote several successful children’s books and TV series, was a successful journalist, and later launched The Good Food Guide. Of his three attempts at crime fiction, only The Verdict of Twelve enjoyed any success. His shrewd observations on human nature and interactions, constructed in a manner to lead the reader to a particular conclusion, made this volume a recognised classic in the field. As the Clerk swears in each juror, we learn something of their story and glimpse their fears and prejudices. Counsel for the Prosecution rises and we are teated to a retelling of the accused’s story that is just short of tabloid in presentation. Yet the defense has another interpretation, for which they frantically seek justification (evidence would be too strong a word). Witnesses flip-flop in their opinions under examination and cross – examination and the jurors retire, mostly baffled by the whole process. It falls to the foreman to guide them through the process of making an “impartial” juudgement.
Postgate, a staunch Marxist and one-time member of the Communist Party does not hide his anti-establishment views, yet it is in the frailties of the people that these are made manifest, as though the ordinary man will bring down the system almost by default. This is never clearer than in the Postscript, when Postgate reveals information that calls into question the whole process.
I spotted this book in a shelf of British Library Classics, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have been fascinated to read more of Postagate’s cleverly expressed observations on our great institutions.
Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate is published by The British Library, with an introduction by Martin Edwards. ISBN 978-0-7123-5674-9
(Edited to correct minor errors)