Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

According to the evidence…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A trial is about to commence and the jury is being sworn in. A death has occurred in unusual circumstances and a woman has been charged with murder. But the evidence is largely circumstantial so it will be up to the jury (and the reader) to decide whether the prosecution has proved its case…

The book has an unusual format, almost like three separate acts. As each jury member is called to take the oath, we are given background information on them; sometimes a simple character sketch, at others what amounts to a short story telling of events in their lives that have made them what they are. These introductions take up more than a third of the book before we even find out who has been murdered and who is on trial. When the trial begins, the reader is whisked out of the courtroom to see the crime unfold. Finally we see the evidence as it is presented at the trial and then follow the jury members as they deliberate. Despite this odd structure, I found it completely absorbing – each section is excellent in itself and together they provide a fascinating picture of how people’s own experiences affect their judgement of others.

In that sense, it’s almost like a precursor to Twelve Angry Men, although the comparison can’t be taken too far – in this one, we spend more time out of the jury-room than in, and the crime is entirely different. But we do get that same feeling of the jurors having only the limited information presented to them on which to form their judgement, and of seeing how their impressions of the various lawyers and witnesses affect their decisions. And we also see how, once in the jury room, some jurors take the lead in the discussions and gradually bring others round to agree with their opinion – a rather cynical portrayal of how the evidence might be distorted in either direction by people with strong prejudices of their own.

Challenge details:
Book: 65
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1940

What I found so interesting about the first section is that Postgate uses his jury members to give a kind of microcosm of society of the time, The book was first published in 1940, but feels as if it’s set a couple of years before WW2 begins. Instead, the war that is mostly referred to is WW1, showing how the impact of that conflict is still affecting lives a couple of decades later. Postgate also addresses some of the issues of the day, lightly for the most part, though he does get a little polemical about the dangerous growth of anti-Semitism in British society – very forgivably considering the time of writing. A jury is an excellent device to bring a group of people together who would be unlikely to cross paths in the normal course of things – here we have a university professor, a travelling salesman, a domestic servant, a pub landlord, etc., all building up to an insightful look at the class structures within society. But we also see their interior lives – what has formed their characters: success, failure, love and love lost, greed, religious fervour.

I was also surprised at some of the subjects Postgate covered. One of the jurors allows him to give a rather more sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality than I’d have expected for the time. Another juror has clearly been used and abused by older men in his youth and has learned the art of manipulation and blackmail as a result – again in a very short space Postgate gives enough information for us to understand even if we can’t completely empathise with the character. There is the woman whose character was formed early by her hideous parents and a state that was more concerned with making her a valuable worker than a decent person. Each character is entirely credible and, knowing their background means we understand how they come to their individual decisions in the jury room.

Raymond Postgate

The crime itself is also done very well. I’ve not given any details of it because part of the success of the story comes from it only slowly becoming obvious who is to be the victim and who the accused. It’s a dark story with some genuinely disturbing elements, but it’s lifted by occasional touches of humour. Again characterisation is key, and Postgate provides enough background for the people involved for us to feel that their actions, however extreme, are quite plausible in the context. After the trial, there is a short epilogue where we find out if the jury, and we, got it right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this – excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. Easy to see why it’s considered a classic – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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36 thoughts on “Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

      • I have so many I am never going to live long enough to read them all. I am a crime addict, as a reader and a writer and I cannot say no! Martin Edwards was in an anthology in which I have 2 stories included – and his British Library Classics are fab. 🙂

  1. Oh. My. Word. I am in love with this book already. This is the book equivalent of cake. What an absolutely perfect way to bring together so many different types of characters! And, as much as I love a good murder mystery, it makes a refreshing change to see a crime from this angle instead. Consider this firmly on my TBR. I cannot live without this book! 😀
    (Also I put a picture of Mumsie’s cake on Twitter, because the world needs to see it 🙂 )

    • I suspect you’d love this as much as I did! These crime classics are killing me – I want to read them all… and every other book in the world. It’s a problem too great for even massive doses of cake to solve – though I’m still testing that theory just to be sure. Even though this shows it from a different angle, there’s still a good mystery – it looks like an open and shut case till the lawyers start debating the evidence and then doubt creeps in… 😀

  2. I keep hearing this is a good ‘un, FictionFan, and it does sound like a really interesting way to go about telling a crime story. I like the way Postgate gives background information on the jurors – very clever way of going about it. And using a trial to show the original murder is very clever, too. I can see why you liked this one as well as you did. I may have to sneak this one onto my Kindle, where only my Kindle and I will know I added it to the TBR…. 🙂

    • One of the best of the BL CRime Classics so far, I think – and I’ve enjoyed all the other ones I’ve read! The jurors’ stories really add a lot of interest to what might otherwise have been a still good but fairly standard murder mystery. I suspect your Kindle will thank you for this one… 😉

  3. This sounds very intriguing. Having spent a year and a half on a jury (you read that correctly), it would be interesting to compare the experience. I’m not sure when I’d get to this though.

    • Good grief, L. Marie – a year and a half?!?!! Yikes!! This jury were only there for a few hours. I hope your jury duty has come to an end now – it must have had its interesting moments though. Good material for a book, perhaps?

  4. I’m pleased to see a five star review from you as I will be reading this myself soon and was hoping you’d say you enjoyed it! I’m looking forward to reading it even more now – and thanks for not giving away any details of the crime. 🙂

    • I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – it’s something different from the usual style of murder mystery, and very well written. I found it quite hard to review though without giving too much away… 😉 I look forward to hearing what you think of it. 🙂

  5. Putting the actual crime in the middle of the book puzzles me a bit. I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer knowing who got “dun in” at the outset. Having sat through many a criminal trial as a journalist, I’m pretty familiar with the character sketches of potential jurors, and it’s always fascinated me how a legal team selects or rejects each candidate. Thanks for cautioning me about the epilogue — how’d you know I have a penchant for turning to the back pages first?!?

    • It is an odd format, but it really works – maybe because at the point he’s telling the jurors’ stories, they don’t know what the trial will be about either. And it means that the crime, trial and jury deliberations can all be at quite a fast pace because we already know who everybody is. Yes, I think picking the jury is much more complicated on your side of the Pond – over here for most crimes, the jury selection is random and I don’t think the lawyers get to reject people in quite the same way. I don’t remember being quizzed the only time I was on a jury long, long ago.

  6. This is the Postgate who was a conscientious objector during WWI, isn’t it? And who then married into the Labour Party and was disowned by his Tory family. If I’m right, then one of his sons went on to create Bagpus. What better reason could there be to read this?

    • It is indeed he! I considered putting a picture of Bagpuss on the review, but I felt it might confuse people… 😉 I must say that I felt his political leanings came through pretty clearly in this – not in any kind of polemical way (except for the bits about anti-Semitism) but just which characters he seemed most to sympathise with. Lots to interest in this one beyond the basic mystery…

    • This is a must read for those of us who’ve become addicted to the BL books – one of the best I’ve read so far (and I’ve enjoyed all the other ones I’ve read). The structure is odd but it really works – enjoy! 😀

  7. Lovely! I’m actually very pleased to see such a positive review of this as I was looking at it a bookshop a few weeks ago. The premise sounds very interesting, as does the throwback to the aftermath of WW1. I’m sure I’ll pick up a copy at some point.

    • Even though the structure is a bit odd, I though it really worked, and he is very insightful about that particular moment in time. The jury structure lets him show all different facets of society too, without it feeling forced, and I liked the way he made sure to show that WW1 was still affecting people as WW2 began. Definitely one to look out for… 😀

    • I suspect you might enjoy this – lots of insight about society in the various jurors’ stories and the quality of the writing is excellent. Plus, if memory serves me right, you’re a fan of Sredni Vashtar… (Isn’t that so mean of me to throw in something tantalising like that and then not explain it? Now you’ll have to read it to find out why… *chuckles wickedly*)

  8. Oh this sounds like a fun court room drama! Also, I love the fact that this publisher provides you ‘classics’ to review, what a nice change from the all the contemporary stuff we always get in the mail as reviewers…

    • I know! I’m so pleased they’re reissuing all this classic crime. If they weren’t review copies I’d probably never find time to squeeze them in, and they’re keeping me well supplied. This one is particularly good. 😀

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