Cover Image: Scoundrel

Scoundrel

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This was really one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" books. How no one knew this man was conning them is beyond me but he did! Weinman is very good at true crime. She doesn't get bogged down in the details but presents them clearly and without too much commentary. I enjoy how much time she gives to the victims as well. So many true crime books gloss over that but she doesn't.
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I picked up this one because I enjoyed an earlier book about Clark Rockefeller and this seemed similar. But, perhaps because it was similar, this just didn’t grab me.
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Could not put this book down I have read other books by the author and they also were excellent. True Crime fans this book is for you.I will be recommending.#netgalley #eccobooks.
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A fascinating if depressing story of a cold-blooded killer of a teen girl who receives a death sentence but is eventually championed as innocent by a well-known Conservative pundit and a Knopf editor who ushers him to literary fame with his first book, A Brief Against Death, which was a minor bestseller. (As crime podcasts are hot now, true crime "nonfiction novels" by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were bestsellers.)

Within a few years of Edgar Smith's release, he tries to kill another woman. At this point, all of his champions realize they'd been horribly fooled. (Or horribly fooled by themselves.)

Edgar Smith, a born sociopath, begins attacking girls when he's still a boy. In his early 20s, he kidnaps and murders a 15-year-old local girl named Vickie Zielinski. He's sentenced to death. Despite overwhelming physical evidence - such as her blood on his pants - and even a confession, he is such a bald-faced manipulator that he is very quickly able to befriend several important people on the outside who spend years diligently working for his release. The most important of those people is Firing Line pundit William Buckley, Jr. who primarily seemed to believe in Smith's innocence because Smith liked his magazine, National Review.

The Knopf editor, Sophie Wilkins, couldn't seem to wrap her head around the idea that a man who wrote her amusing letters could also be a cold-blooded killer, so she began an epistolary relationship with him that soon turned sexual (today we'd call it a text relationship). She also shepherded his first book to publication - a memoir that proclaimed his innocence and, as was customary during the times (the 50s-70s), blamed everything on the victim (calling her sexually aggressive, etc.). As for his attack of an 11-year-old girl in the woods years earlier, he also blamed the girl, insisting she was a pathological liar who''d accused many men of rape (despite no evidence of this). It's depressing and demoralizing to see how quickly his self-serving lies are swallowed by Buckley, Wilkins, various lawyers, and various women who date him while he's incarcerated.

After 14 years worth of legal wrangling, he's released and feted in NYC literary circles, gets an apartment and girlfriend, publishes more books, and even has a freelance journalism career. After his girlfriend dumps him after one too many incidents where his mask drops and he shows his sociopathic side, he finds a young, timid 19-year-old girl (he's in his mid-40s) and marries her. But his true nature can't be tamped down for long, and soon he is regularly abusing his young wife, getting deep into debt, and alienating his influential champions. After he gets turned down for a job, he does what he normally does when he's upset - he tries to kill a random woman, stabbing her in her heart. She somehow survives and this time Smith won't escape the yoke of prison.

Author Sarah Weinman (The Real Lolita) does a fine job telling this most outrageously appalling of stories, and doing it with a simple but knowledgeable style. It wasn't always an easy book to read, and it took me longer than expected because the first third of it is so relentlessly bleak. Bad men and female victims everywhere. Even Vickie's dad is horrible - at one point sexually assaulting the family dog, if you can believe it. The story picked up for me when Sophie Wilkins - intelligent, cultured, and also stressed and bored (her husband had mental health issues) quickly falls prey to Smith's raffish and inconsistent "charms" and the two embark on a love letter affair.

It took Truman Capote to see through Edgar Smith's fake persona. Asked to blurb Smith's book, he told Buckley he believed Smith was guilty. Asked why, Truman said in his usual wise, droll fashion: "I haven't met one yet who isn't."

Thank you Sarah Weinman, Ecco, and NetGalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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This book was so promising. I was psyched to read it after the introduction. Then I continued reading and my excitement waned... to the point that I was just eager to finish and move on. It's hard to describe exactly what turned me off about the book. The premise that this man had fooled so many people was interesting, but it didn't play out for most of the book. Instead, there as bunch of talk about the justice system process and the book writing and publishing process. Smith's inevitable fall from grace felt rushed compared to the amount of time spent on his wooing of the public.
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Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman is that wonderful type of true crime book that combines the crime, and thus the criminal's, story with the stories of those affected by the crime. In doing so, it illustrates many of the issues still facing how we want our "justice" system to function.

Any true crime book has to walk that fine line between sensationalism and reportage. Many readers, even those of us reluctant to admit it, still want a bit of the sensational. Weinman keeps that aspect down to what is only natural for a crime of this sort, especially one with the afterlife this one had. Victims are often overlooked in these accounts, much less so here. And peripheral people are rarely mentioned, yet they are given some room here for their stories. In particular it is the women who are overlooked beyond their roles as either victim or supportive spouse/parent. We see here just how many women ended up hurt or manipulated because of the dysfunctionality of our "justice" system. Yes, I am using quotation marks as scare quotes because our system is about almost everything except justice, with the usual exception of for white males (from their perspective anyway).

The writing here keeps the reader moving forward while also having what seemed to me to be almost asides that highlight some element that speaks to the larger issues, such as the disconnect between public support and private doubt based on experience. These asides don't hinder the overall narrative of the book but serve to keep the reader attuned to things beyond just what happened.

I would recommend this to readers of true crime as well as those interested in cases that speak to our "justice" system and how it should function. Also readers who want to know a little more about the people involved besides just the criminal.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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This is a great true crime book about a story that I was unfamiliar with.  It was highly informative and interesting.  I would definitely recommend reading it.
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