In the 1960s, Edgar Smith, in prison and sentenced to death for the murder of teenager Victoria Zielinski, struck up a correspondence with William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. Buckley began to advocate not only for Smith's life to be spared but also for his sentence to be overturned. So begins a bizarre and tragic tale of mid-century America. Scoundrel leads us through the twists of fate and fortune that brought Smith to freedom, book deals, fame, and eventually to attempting murder again.
... 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.