Yes, this is the follow-up to the refined sensibilities post. And it’s about a true-crime book.
The problem with the true crime genre is that criminals are not interesting people. Authors have to concentrate on the investigation, the trial, or the impact on the victims because there isn’t much to write about otherwise.
Sarah Weinman didn’t have that problem, though, as she sat down to write a book about Edgar Smith.
Smith was a trailer park deadbeat in New Jersey who stupidly murdered a young girl for no discernible reason, immediately got arrested, and was promptly sent to Death Row. So far so boring.
But then it started to get interesting. On Death Row, Smith somehow learned to write like a person of refined sensibilities. Mind you, he didn’t learn to speak or to live like one, only to write. So he wrote.
As a result, he managed to attract the attention of William F. Buckley, a leading conservative intellectual. Think what you will of his political beliefs, it is undeniable that Buckley was an intellectual of the highest caliber. Being a conservative, he didn’t hold criminals in high regard, to put it mildly. Imagine the power of Smith’s writing to strike a close friendship that spanned well over a decade with somebody like that.
And it wasn’t only Buckley. From his jail cell, Smith wrote thousands of letters to some extremely sophisticated people, making them downright besotted with him and, what’s really shocking, seeing him as one of them. They didn’t feel sorry for him. They felt intellectual affinity. Smith began to write books and became a best-selling author while sitting on Death Row.
The intellectuals who befriended (and in one fascinating case, fell in love with) Smith couldn’t conceive that such a cultured, sensitive, deep man could have really been guilty of some sordid, senseless murder. Or even if he were, then surely, the 15 years after his conviction had clearly reformed him, right?
So every effort was made to help Smith go free. And he did. His sentence was commuted to time served and he was released.
Unfortunately, as I said before, he could write like a sophisticated person but not live like one. Soon enough, Smith stopped writing, dropped his intellectual friends, including Buckley, and reverted to his persona of an indigent, shady bum.
And then he tried to murder somebody else.
I’m not giving any spoilers here because all this is mentioned in the first two pages of the book. It’s how he made himself attractive to so many people and managed to be in writing what he couldn’t be in person that the book explores.
I have to warn you that if you decide to read Scoundrel, please be prepared for the obligatory woke pledge in the opening paragraphs. Weinman swears fealty to the cause of “Black and Brown boys” who make absolutely no appearance in the rest of the book but have to be invoked like jealous deities whenever one speaks on any subject whatsoever these days. Once you get past that, the book becomes really good. Every subchapter ends on a cool cliffhanger that makes you want to keep reading.
Smith’s literary gift abandoned him as suddenly as it had come. As I keep saying, we can’t know why the gift gets bestowed on people or taken away. Scoundrel gives us a glimpse into this mystery and is worth reading for that reason alone.
2 thoughts on “Book Notes: Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman”
Buckley’s “National Review” was an interesting rag for a while, but R Emmett Tyrrell’s “The American Spectator” was a better alternative.
Tyrrell could find the time for PJ O’Rourke and Joe Bageant, which put him a cut above Buckley on the basis that he could find the time for a laugh.
Bageant’s bit on smoking in New York that ran in “The American Specator” for me was hilarious, not so much because I’m into smoking, but instead because I’m into anything that ruffles the precious sensibilities of New Yorkers, which he did so well.
“… it is undeniable that Buckley was an intellectual of the highest caliber …”
Ah, yeah, about that …
Buckley was always the CIA’s boy they wanted unofficially in charge of the intellectual side of the American Conservative movement.
As such, he kept up with anything coming up in the ranks and anything coming out of the official opposition, just in case there was ever a chance of breakaway movements, which most likely also explains his friendship with Norman Mailer.
What a weird conduit for some kind of rehabilitation for Buckley among the belles-lettres types.
You might have fun with Joe Bageant’s “Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War”.
What’s old is new: “Is Our President a Whackjob? Does It Matter?” comes to us from 2004, not 2024.
Bageant did what Buckley could never do: he wrote as a redneck for rednecks who despite any pretences of “refined sensibilities” can still have a laugh.
But this is cool, you’ll get a tour of the Conservative Gatekeepers of America this way … have fun! 🙂
“wrote thousands of letters to some extremely sophisticated people, making them downright besotted with him”
I was confused for a bit and then realized I was confusing this case with the same scenario (lousy criminal seducing famous writer) happened again beat for beat in the late 70s or early 80s…
Intellectual ability and or writing talent does not make a person a good judge of character…
The same with performers and their unformed/half-baked political opinions. I don’t care about that because I don’t look to actors or singers for political guidance (and assume their opinions will be… unformed and half-baked).
Is it misguided or missing religious thought that makes people search for idealized people that don’t exist?