Magazine article The Spectator

The Flash of the Knife

Magazine article The Spectator

The Flash of the Knife

Article excerpt

THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet Malcolm Papermac, 112, pp. 176

It is not easy for other journalists and biographers to know what to make of Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker reporter and critic who for some years now has made it her business to put all of us on the spot. Her intelligence and subtlety of mind cannot be denied; she writes exceptionally well; her perceptions are often striking and original. The questions she raises, about the nature of the relationship between writers and the people they write about, need to be asked. The dilemma pond in which she dangles her hook is murky and insufficiently plumbed. There is much to admire in what she does, but it has nevertheless become increasingly clear that Malcolm's own performance is as deeply flawed as, and perhaps even more self-serving than, the work of those she takes to pieces with such relish.

This book began as a series for the New Yorker, like most of her writing, and was first published in 1990. It is an investigation in the form of an extended essay - Malcolm's preferred form, which allows her to take short cuts with narrative and chronology and to be highly selective with her material - into the dealings between a writer, Joe McGinniss, and an army doctor, Jeffrey Macdonald, who was first cleared and then convicted of killing his wife and children in 1970. McGinniss became close to Macdonald while writing a book about the case, based at the outset on his stated belief in his subject's innocence. Many conversations were taped and letters were exchanged; until the book came out in 1984, Macdonald believed McGinniss's account would vindicate him. In fact, during his five years of research McGinniss came to believe that his subject was guilty, and his book said as much. When Macdonald realised the extent, to use Janet Malcolm's idiom, of his `seduction and betrayal' by the man he had thought his ally and friend, he took him to court for fraud and breach of contract and secured a financial settlement.

This tangled web of deceit, greed (the profits of the book were to be shared) and the bending of the commonly accepted rules of the journalistic profession is meat and drink to Janet Malcolm. As is her wont, she skilfully pre-empts criticism of her own role by acknowledging that she herself is just another journalist in pursuit of a good story, while conveying between the lines that of course she is cleverer and more morally scrupulous than most. …

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