The Trial of Callista Blake
In 1959, in the state of New Essex, a witch was on trial. Or so she seemed to many of the jurors who would ultimately decide her fate, and to the people who thronged the crowded courtroom, many of them friends of the murdered woman. On trial for poisoning her former lover's wife, she would--if found guilty--be executed.
Callista Blake is nineteen years old at the time of her trial. She has a very slight physical deformity, and the much greater mental ones of apparent aloofness, fierce independence of mind, a laconic and sometimes sarcastic wit, marked but unconventional artistic talent, avowed atheism, and a complete inability to compromise. Added to all this, although she is not beautiful by any of the usual criteria, men find her overwhelmingly attractive. No wonder the good people of Winchester and Shanesville dislike her, fear her, and, subconsciously, at least, think she is a witch. No wonder they do not believe Callista's story that she had mixed the deadly potion of Monkshood and brandy for herself at a moment of suicidal depression, and had been prevented by a miscarriage from saving Nancy Doherty, who had drunk the stuff accidentally. The circumstantial evidence against Callista could not be more damning, yet there are one or two people unshakeably convinced of her innocence.
This is the story of their struggle in the courtroom to save her. On her side are one witness--Edith Nolan, her friend and former employer--her defending counsel--Cecil Warner, a sick, aging man who loves her--and Terence Mann, who in his role as judge is obliged to attempt impartiality but, trying his first case carrying the death penalty, is appalled that the fate of a human being can be at the mercy of anything so haphazard as the adversary system and the whim of a jury. We see Callista's ordeal and the events that brought her to it from the viewpoints of all these people, as well as that of Callista herself. We see T. J. Hunter, the formidable District Attorney (they call him hunter Hunter), Jim Doherty, only too willing to accept his confessor's view that he was an innocent ensnared by a temptress of whom he is now happily free, Callista's well-meaning stepfather, hopelessly dominated by her overbearing, histrionic mother, the perfect Gertrude to Callista's Hamlet, and many others who indirectly hold Callista's life in their hands. We gradually learn the history of Callista's passionate affair with Jim, told with a compassion and insight which contrast poignantly with the chilling ritual of the courtroom. Edgar Pangborn knows and understands the people he writes about. And with irresistible force he shows that no one is good enough or wise enough to hold the power of life and death. (Summary from book dust jacket)
Genre(s): Crime & Mystery Fiction, Published 1900 onward