... a riveting chronicle ... Weinman, who lays out the details with a prosecutor’s care, convincingly demonstrates Smith was the killer ... As a writer, she’s more interested in the lives of the victims than Smith’s psychology ... It’s hard to imagine anyone grasping the importance of [Knopf editor Sophie] Wilkins’s role as well as Weinman does ... The relationship between Wilkins and Smith is the surprising secret heart of this book, showing how a sensitive, intelligent person might fall for a con-man. It’s a mirror for all the others who believed his claims of innocence—the people who bought Smith’s books, his wives, his mother, his friends, and defenders ... Weinman is able to tell the story in vivid detail because of letters and their permanence ... Many of these letters are excerpted to lay out the story as it moves forward in granular detail.
In straightforward prose, Weinman diligently and chronologically recreates the judicial proceedings, literary lunches, letter exchanges, prison visits, stays of execution and romances (there were many!) that led from incarceration to exoneration and back again. Her research is meticulous and extensive, allowing us to witness step by shocking step how Buckley and Wilkins chose to believe and then hand a microphone to a murderer ... But in allowing her characters to self-incriminate, Weinman cedes a modicum of control. I found myself wishing she would indict those involved not just for being despicable but for being complicit ... Instead, Weinman makes Buckley out to be a well-meaning man duped by a cunning manipulator.
The narrative's goal isn't to grip readers using a what-happens-next approach...but rather to explore how and why things happened the way they did — and who helped him become one of the most famous convicted murderers of his time ... But why did Buckley become so committed to Smith ... Weinman's answer is complex, of course, but might be boiled down to two major ideas: first, that Smith's talent as a writer was impressive enough to win him friends and admirers and, second, that he was incredibly manipulative ... Smith clearly was manipulative ... Indeed, the excerpts of his letters that appear in the book were convincing enough to sow doubt in my own mind at first, and I found myself being disturbingly drawn to him and his writing. This is, perhaps, precisely why Weinman does so little editorializing ... Scoundrel is very much a hard-boiled true-crime narrative, detailed and careful. But although Weinman writes that it's Smith's victims who animate the narrative of the book...it doesn't quite read that way ... Still, it's clear that Weinman tried to breathe as much life into the women as she could, and the book certainly excels at being an in-depth exploration of how outside influence and support can affect the criminal justice system's slow-moving cogs, as well as the narrative of a con artist who managed to hurt a great deal of people.
... [a] powerful new book from Ottawa-born writer and editor Sarah Weinman ... Unlike many true crime accounts, Scoundrel isn’t a whodunnit, and doesn’t rely on twists or withholding information for its considerable power. It is, instead, an examination of relationships shaped and twisted by the words and actions of a master manipulator and killer ... Rooted in archival work and interviews, with extensive quoting from letters and other documents, Scoundrel demonstrates the full potential of the true crime genre: expansive and incisive, with deep attention (and respect) given to those affected by the crimes, rather than focusing on salacious detail. It makes for an unsettling, and enthralling, reading experience, and an important one.
Author Sarah Weinman digs deep ... Meticulously researched, Scoundrel paints a portrait of a criminal adept at targeting people like Buckley who he could win over — but whose violent instincts eventually led to his downfall.
... provocative and unsettling. It compels the reader to ponder weighty questions: Did a savage thug exploit smart, decent people? Can altruism sometimes be as lethal as psychopathology? Evil pervades this book, but it makes for a terrific read.
As Sarah Weinman recounts in compelling detail in Scoundrel, there was to be a second act to this tawdry drama, one in which Smith, briefly and implausibly, played the role of wronged man ... The appeal of certain incarcerated people to random artists and intellectuals is a fascinating subject, by no means separating liberals from conservatives, and Scoundrel keeps its sharp eye fixed on the appeal’s mystery. What, for example, led Smith’s erudite, 50-something editor at Knopf to succumb to his psychopathic charm and indulge his sexual fantasies?
... meticulously researched ... Scoundrel, a fascinating true story that likewise mixes crimes against women and midcentury literary grandiosity ... Weinman does not do as much to explore this issue as I would have liked—what does it mean that Buckley loved and was loved by a homicidal misogynist? Why did the pro-capital punishment Buckley see Smith as worthy of his advocacy? ... I longed for more women’s voices ... Weinman’s style owes much to the true-crime podcast
boom; it is painstaking about the evidence, investigations, legal appeals. She lets the facts and the players speak for themselves.
Weinman weaves a strange and compelling tale about murder, deception, fame, and friendship ... Weinman makes great use of the many letters that exist between all three of them. This is a psychologically fascinating must-read for true-crime buffs.
With this enthralling book, Weinman details the twisted, extraordinary story of a murderer who manipulated his way to freedom and fame ... Weinman thoroughly covers Smith’s deception and his eventual return to crime. She writes with empathy for Smith’s victims, including those left in the wake of his lies, and a critical eye toward the systems that allowed him to continue committing offenses. The book is a must-read for true crime fans, but it will appeal to nonfiction readers across genres ... An immediately absorbing story of crime, manipulation, and influence.
Electric ... Despite his crimes happening more than 60 years ago, Weinman paints a complete portrait of Smith in all his complexity, with an unsettling ending that left me breathless. A chilling and deeply satisfying read, Scoundrel injects life into a story nearly forgotten by time.
In this mesmerizing account, Weinman does a masterly job resurrecting a stranger-than-fiction chapter in American criminal justice ... Weinman’s dogged research, which included correspondence with Smith, who died in prison in 2017, and a study of Buckley’s papers, enable her to craft a deeply unsettling narrative about how a clever killer manipulated the justice system to his benefit. This instant classic raises disturbing questions about gullibility even on the part of the very bright.
Weinman’s book is not only a disturbing study in how 'brilliant people' and the institutions they serve can be successfully conned. It is also a reminder of how society has always used talent as a way to excuse male acts of aggression and violence against women ... Wholly compelling reading from an author well versed in the true-crime genre.