The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb (St. Martin's Press, 2010)
Years ago, when I attended my first Malice Domestic convention, I met Sharyn McCrumb, author of three beloved series, including the Elizabeth McPerson, the Ballad, and the St. Dale series. Malice Domestic, which recently celebrated its 29th year, is an annual mystery fan convention, held in Bethesda, Maryland. A wide range of writers attend, speaking in forums, giving workshops, and holding meet and greets to autograph their works for avid readers. Over the years I had met Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwell, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Patricia Noyes among a few of the notables in attendance. However, Sharyn McCrumb, with her raven hair and Elizabeth Taylor eyes, wearing a flowing cloak of black velvet, continues to be the most exciting personality I have ever met at the gathering of literary notables. She was as warm and interesting as the characters she has created, particularly in the Ballad grouping.
Since meeting McCrumb, I have devoured every one of her works, and each time I visit the library I scour the new arrivals to see if she has published again. Unfortunately, McCrumb hasn't put out anything new since 2013. However, recently I discovered The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, which had somehow escaped me upon its publication. I have long been wanting to write about McCrumb in my column, and reading this book has given me an opportunity to pay tribute to the great Sharyn McCrumb, a masterful American story teller.
Set in 1935, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, recounts the story of a young teacher, Erma Morton, who is accused of killing her father by bashing in his head following an argument about her coming home late from an evening with friends. Based on the actual murder trial of Edith Maxwell, McCrumb focuses her story on the feeding frenzy of the press, which thrives on stories of violence and tragedy, such as the coverage of Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and the “trial of the century,” the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.
As the trial of Erma Morton is about to commence, Henry Jernigan, a well known newspaperman, Rose Hanelon, a homely and pathetic sob-sister, Carl Jennings, a novice writer fresh out of college, and Shade Baker, an avid photographer, rush to Appalachia to cover the hottest story of the moment. Although Erma is in the eye of the storm, we learn more about each of the journalists, who are fascinating and complex creatures, striving to come up with the most vivid version of the alleged crime.
None of these writers are in Virginia to get at the truth of the story. In fact, the big syndicates have prearranged with the brother of the accused, a nasty piece of work named Harley Morton, to have exclusive interviews with Erma, who doesn't seem to be talking much about her father's death to anyone. Erma may very well be a sacrificial lamb to the gods of sensationalistic journalism. In a conversation with an old reporter, the elder writer explains the power of a journalist to young Carl by explaining, “Hell, son, the pen isn't mightier than the sword. It is the sword.” (p. 7)
Jernigan, recognized among his peers as a celebrity author, had spent several years in Japan during the 1920s. As the result of experiencing the Kanto earthquake, Jernigan suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which cripples him emotionally. McCrumb peppers the novel with the haiku of the great 17th century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, tying the simple, but elegant, Asian poems to the events of Jernigan's past with the current tragedy of Erma Morton.
One of the tricks of the journalist's trade in regaling their readership with high interest stories is to link the events being covered with great pieces of literature. An example of this device is noted when Jernigan is reading a book on the train headed toward Wise, the site of the trial. The journalist notes, “After sixty interminable pages, he had begun to think of the book as the 'The Trail of the Loathsome Pine,' a quip he planned to spring on his colleagues as soon as he met up with them. At last winter's trial in New Jersey, clever but ugly Rose Hanelon had made a similar play on words with a Gene Stratton Porter title. When the family governess had committed suicide, Rose took to referring to her as the 'Girl of the Lindbergh-Lost.'” (p. 9)
Young Carl Jennings does want to tell a version of the truth in his first major story, and he has an idea that allows for McCrumb to bring in one of her greatest characters of the Ballad series, Nora Bonesteel. As are most of the Appalachian people, Nora, is a descendent of the Scottish settlers, who brought such famous ballads as “She Walks These Hills,” and “If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O,” to America with them. But Nora, who appears in this novel as a nine year old child, has another gift which many of the Scottish ancestors brought with them; the gift of second sight. Carl is hopeful that Nora will be able to help him find out what really happened on the night that Erma's father died. However, Nora tried to explain to her naïve cousin that having the gift of second sight doesn't work that way. Jennings, with his noble intentions, has the greatest challenge in writing his version of the trial.
If you are a fan of mysteries and you have never heard of Sharyn McCrumb, I am presenting you with a great gift in today's column. Start with the first Ballad novel, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, and then don't miss the first of McCrumb's engaging series about auto racing, St. Dale. With summer just ahead of us, McCrumb will keep you page turning while sitting at the beach or late into night.