The Crime Lady: Introducing SCOUNDREL, My Next Book

Dear TCL Readers:

Hi, it’s been a while. So much has happened in the world, in your own lives, and in mine. I write this newsletter from my childhood home, whose revisiting seemed an impossible dream mere weeks ago. But the day before my mother’s birthday, I crossed the border and got to hug her and my brother, neither of whom I’ve seen in person since 2019. Since then it’s been a time of reflection, rest, and a nostalgia trip through the books I most loved as a teen and young adult. (More on that, I hope, in a future dispatch.)

I’m a few months in as the New York Times Book Review’s crime columnist — you can access all of my columns at this link, and please note the amazing illustrations accompanying the columns by Pablo Amargo — something that remains a dream gig and a giddy pleasure because it’s reconnected me to contemporary crime fiction, and to readers. I also hope my own sensibility in terms of what books, and authors, are worth reviewing comes through, column after column. I’ll continue to please myself, and in the process, reach as wide an audience as possible.

Now, finally, the reason for reviving this long-dormant newsletter: my next book is finally finished, and will be published by Ecco/HarperCollins and Knopf Canada on February 22, 2022. Here’s the back cover copy for the US edition of Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts To Set Him Free:

From the author of The Real Lolita and editor of Unspeakable Acts, the astonishing story of a murderer who conned the people around him—including conservative thinker William F. Buckley—into helping set him free

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, who refused to believe that a man who supported the neoconservative movement could have committed such a heinous crime, 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. Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel leads us through the twists of fate and fortune that brought Smith to freedom, book deals, fame, and eventually to attempting murder again. In Smith, Weinman has uncovered a psychopath who slipped his way into public acclaim and acceptance before crashing down to earth once again.

From the people Smith deceived—Buckley, the book editor who published his work, friends from back home, and the women who loved him—to Americans who were willing to buy into his lies, Weinman explores who in our world is accorded innocence, and how the public becomes complicit in the stories we tell one another.

Scoundrel shows, with clear eyes and sympathy for all those who entered Smith’s orbit, how and why he was able to manipulate, obfuscate, and make a mockery of both well-meaning people and the American criminal justice system. It tells a forgotten part of American history at the nexus of justice, prison reform, and civil rights, and exposes how one man’s ill-conceived plan to set another man free came at the great expense of Edgar Smith’s victims.

I’m also over the moon about Scoundrel’s cover, designed by Richard Ljoenes, which communicates what the book is about and its mid-century setting to stellar effect. It was very important to me that if Edgar Smith’s photo was to appear on the cover, he could not be there alone, and that (most of) the women and girls in his life, and to whom he caused degrees of harm ranging from psychological manipulation to abuse to assault to murder, should be present as well.

Victoria Zielinski, whose life Smith snuffed out at the age of 15, is in the photo on the left side of the cover. The four women grouped together on the cover’s right side are the various women who loved him: Patricia Horton, married to Smith for less than a year and mother to their 3-month-old baby when Victoria Zielinski was murdered in March 1957; Sophie Wilkins, the book editor at Knopf (and future translator of Robert Musil’s mammoth epic A Man Without Qualities) who guided Smith’s first book to publication in 1968 (and developed a highly inappropriate relationship with him in the process); Juliette Scheinman, a onetime actress, activist, and single mother who became romantically involved with Smith immediately before and after he was set free in 1971; and Paige Hiemier, his second wife, her life permanently scarred by taking up with him at an impressionable age.

William F. Buckley is on the cover, too. The photo of him and Edgar Smith is from their two-part interview on Firing Line taped immediately after Smith was set free in a Bergen County courtroom on December 7, 1971. Though it was more from happenstance, that Buckley’s back is to Victoria Zielinski says a great deal as well.

By the time Scoundrel is published next year, more than seven years will have passed since I first began researching and reporting the project. I can’t wait to fill you all in on what that entailed, the voluminous trove of documents and letters I consulted across multiple archives, the people I spoke with, and the strange juxtaposition of criminal justice, conservative thought, and book publishing that connected the crimes and misdeeds of one man who fooled so many into looking past his worst instincts to see what was never really there.

Above all, I cannot wait until Scoundrel is in readers’ hands. February 22, 2022 isn’t all that far away, and there’s no time like the present to pre-order at your favorite retailer.

Until then (and far sooner) I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: Give a Dose To the One You Love Most

Dear TCL Readers:

I got my first dose last Friday at the racetrack. I don’t gamble and even if I did I wouldn’t bet on horses and so I’d never visited the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens before. (Here’s why I was eligible, by the way.) So this pandemic anniversary already feels different, and not “oh, it’s March again.” I see the end, differentially distributed and still horrifically unequal. I suspect more of you have received first doses, maybe even second doses, and that will only increase over the next month.

After the vaccination — simple, efficient, friendly, if acoustically challenged, also Pfizer — I sat around waiting for an allergic reaction that never showed up. One of the security guards wandered by and, unprompted, said: “if you wait for another 15-20 minutes you can see the horses go by.”

Maybe I will when I go back in a few weeks.

**

I won’t send out a newsletter to announce each new NYTBR column, but since it’s still early in my tenure, here is the latest one, reviewing new books by Sarah Langan, Rio Youers, Nalini Singh, and Allison Epstein. Thank you first and foremost to the readers, whom I hope these reviews (and in many cases, recommendations) are helpful. Thank you also to all the publicists who have auto-approved me on NetGalley and who have been judicious and careful in their pitches. For what it’s worth: I’m reading late spring/early summer titles now, and generally work several months ahead of schedule.

**

Some other freelance pieces landed over the past couple of weeks. I reviewed Tori Telfer’s Confident Women for AirMail. Telfer’s work is a mix of storytelling and reporting, and I enjoyed it immensely (especially the essays where she did a significant amount of reporting on little-known con artists, though the better-known stories were well done, too.) And for InsideHook, I wrote a career retrospective on Robert Littell, America’s emeritus (and, to my mind, greatest living) espionage novelist.

It was such a pleasure to read all of his books — The Company (2002) is his masterwork, but my favorite is The Sisters (1986) which seemed exactly what I needed in the runup to the 2020 election. But I did discover some surprises:

After the piece ran, I heard from Littell himself. He enjoyed the piece, which was gratifying to hear, and said he had just completed a new novel, “set in 1990-91 when the Soviet Union was being swept into the dustbin of history and a post-Soviet state had not yet put down roots.” He also wanted to know how I’d discovered the various bits of information about his family, and specifically that his father, Leon, changed his name from Litzky to Littell, sharing a story (which he’s given permission for me to quote) of how that change came to be:

My father had to give a reason to the judge in order to change Litzky to Littell. The reason he gave: he was being held up to endless humiliation because of the similarity of his name, Leon Litzky, to that of a Russian Menshevik who lived in New York for three months before the Bolshevik Revolution named Leon Trotsky. The judge must have smiled when he granted my father permission to change the family name.

**

In addition, there are two events coming up next week. On Tuesday, March 9 at 6:30 Eastern/5:30 Central, I’ll be part of an all-star panel for Elon Green’s Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York (read an excerpt here!) hosted by Left Bank Books and sponsored by Crimereads. Elon and I will be joined by David Grann and Bob Kolker, with Benjamin Dreyer as moderator. Here’s the link to register.

And on March 11 at 7 PM Eastern, I’ll be moderating a panel on Dark Academia featuring Amy Gentry (Bad Habits) Elisabeth Thomas (Catherine House) and Micah Nemerever (These Violent Delights). McNally Jackson is hosting, and you can register here.

**

Finally, some of what I’ve been enjoying that aren’t books:

I hope this month, and going forward, you are all kind to yourselves. It’s been the hardest year, and there is no getting around that.

Until next time, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: Long Overdue, and Some News

Dear TCL Readers:

Hi, it’s been a while. January was…well, it seemed like every time I thought about writing a newsletter, there would be an insurrection or an impeachment (or a trial) or an inauguration or a short squeeze or more mass death and anger-inducing news. Book revisions continued, and there were other deadlines. It was a long month, after an extremely long year, with many more long months ahead (though all of the vaccine news is mostly very good, and I remain hopeful about that over the coming months.)

The other reason for the delay is to bring some news: I am succeeding Marilyn Stasio as the Crime columnist for the New York Times Book Review, and the first column appears in this Sunday’s edition (and is online today). In it, I review new releases by Walter Mosley, Belinda Bauer, Catie DiSabato, and Elle Cosimano. The column will run every other week, and I could not be more delighted to have Tina Jordan as my editor, and to grace the pages of the NYTBR on a regular basis.

I write these words and still the news hasn’t sunk in. There isn’t enough gratitude to express, stepping in the shoes of Stasio (who will still write for the paper after an iconic 3-decade-plus run with the column), “Newgate Callendar” (aka Harold C. Schonberg), Allen Hubin, and Anthony Boucher, the original “Criminals At Large” columnist. It’s also a development I’ve been working towards for my entire career, as this 2017 profile of Marilyn pretty obviously foreshadowed, in hindsight?

It does mean there will be changes afoot, and I’d like to discuss them.

First, I won’t be reviewing or blurbing crime fiction anymore. I’d more or less stopped doing that last year, but now it is official. I’ll still be able to review crime nonfiction and other genres elsewhere (see, for example, my review of Justin Fenton’s forthcoming book We Own This City in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal) but blurbs are on hold for now. When I’m available to blurb again, requests must be made through my agents.

Book publicists and editors who subscribe to TCL: I am on NetGalley, and will be requesting galleys primarily through there (auto-approving would be most appreciated, and I thank the publishers who have already done so!)

As the first Crime columnist to have a social media presence, it also means I must shift that presence to conform with NYT social media policy. Which is fine; I’m glad this is happening in February 2021, and I’d rather be paid for my opinions, anyway.

I don’t know what this will mean for attendance at future crime fiction conventions. Stasio was once very active in the mystery fan community, but pulled back almost entirely when she started at the NYTBR (something she spoke about at the memorial service for Evan Hunter in October 2005, an eloquent speech I will never forget). I don’t plan on being invisible, but over the last few years, attending Bouchercon was pretty much split between publisher obligations and hanging out with my friends, and the pandemic has moved everything online, anyway. So we’ll see.

Which brings me to the newsletter itself. I’ve loved doing it, and it’s also clear my bandwidth for keeping it a regular publication is pretty slim, and about to get slimmer. There are niche topics I still want to write about for subscribers, though. And I’ll still send out updates announcing new publications (I do have a book out next year, and more projects in the works, after all) and a stray recommendation or two.

Bear with me, then, as I embark on another new adventure in the world of crime. I’m excited for what the future holds, and to read and write about crime fiction on a regular basis again.

Also, happy birthday to me.

Until next time, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: The Year That Wasn't, The Year That Will Be

Dear TCL Readers,

A year ago we had hardly an inkling of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, and this week the first Americans are being vaccinated. A year ago we could hardly foresee how much life would be upended: how we live, how we work, how we educate our children, how we shop, how we socialize (or, well, don’t), and how we mourn. A year ago there was one president, and now we have elected another. A year ago, more than 300,000 people were still alive who now aren’t.

The only constant is change, yes. And that’s how we have to get through the end of this year and the next, and the years after that. If you made changes in your own lives this year — tiny ones, large ones — my hat is off to you. I can’t in good conscience say that 2021 will be better. There will be moments of better. There will be slivers of good. There will be acts of kindness and grace. And if there’s more than that, embrace them with all the fervor you have in your soul.

The strange thing about this Pandemic Year, for me, is that in one central way, it ended more or less how I expected it to end when I thought about it a year ago. I’m hunkered down, working on book edits, eyeing a Winter 2022 publication, looking ahead to percolating projects in 2021. My health is good. I feel extraordinarily lucky even when blasts of loneliness and isolation hit, as they did as recently as this weekend. There is so much to process. But I’ve never felt more purpose in what I do and how I do it.

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

Here are my favorite books, podcasts, and TV & film of the year, in some particular order:

In Crime fiction:

  • Alyssa Cole, When No One Is Watching

  • S.A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland

  • Tana French, The Searcher

  • Rachel Howzell Hall, And Now She’s Gone

  • Rosalie Knecht, Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery

  • Elizabeth Little, Pretty As a Picture

  • Liz Moore, Long Bright River

  • Ivy Pochoda, These Women

  • Sara Sligar, Take Me Apart

  • Chelsea G. Summers, A Certain Hunger

In Crime Nonfiction:

  • Becky Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close (my review for AirMail)

  • Thomas Doherty, Little Lindy Is Kidnapped

  • Emma Copley Eisenberg, The Third Rainbow Girl (my review for AirMail)

  • Jessica Garrison, The Devil’s Harvest

  • Ravi Somaiya, The Golden Thread (My review for AirMail)

  • Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive

In Nonfiction:

In Fiction:

  • Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind

  • Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

  • Raven Leilani, Luster

  • Yiyun Li, Must I Go

  • Megha Majumdar, A Burning 

  • Jenny Offill, Weather

  • Dheesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

  • Susan Taubes, Divorcing (more on this in the Wall Street Journal)

  • Brandon Taylor, Real Life

  • Robin Wasserman, Mother Daughter Widow Wife

In Podcasts:

  • You Must Remember This, on Polly Platt

  • You’re Wrong About

  • Lolita Podcast (I’m interviewed in episode 4)

  • Once Upon a Time in the Valley

  • Tom Brown’s Body

  • Canary

  • Uncover: Season 6, the Satanic Panic

  • Wind of Change

In Film & Television:

  • I May Destroy You

  • The Queen’s Gambit

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

And here’s what I was most proud to publish in 2020:

  • First and foremost, Unspeakable Acts, the little anthology that could. It’s a Best or Favorite Book of 2020 from NPR, Marie Claire, Oxygen, The Lineup, and generally the critical and commercial reception was better than I dreamed. And the essay I wrote for BuzzFeed on how true crime needs to be different is, I hope, a jumping-off point for a follow-up anthology. Stay tuned…

  • I started 2020 thinking this story about the tragic death of Gloria D’Argenio, a young woman who ended up in the romantic orbit of Meir Kahane would be a subscriber-only newsletter. Then my friends, rightfully, persuaded me to think bigger. The Cut ran the final version over Easter weekend, a mix of tragedy and dangerous ideology that cannot be separated from one another.

  • Over the summer, when publicity for the anthology ebbed and I was waiting for book edits, it was time to think about the actress Sue Lyon, whom I’d wanted to write about since I worked on The Real Lolita. There’s so much more I hope to report about her difficult life, but the piece that ran in AirMail in October gets at one central relationship that contributed so much to her lifelong damage.

  • Years also passed between when I first thought about writing about Linda Millar, the daughter of Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar, and when CrimeReads published the story in late November. This is how it works sometimes. The three pieces form a loose trilogy of midcentury tragedy; I see them in conversation with one another.

  • All trilogies end up with a coda, and the essay I wrote about a 1955 unsolved murder that long obsessed me, and how revisiting it (and my notes) ended up kinda, sorta, solving it, is a treatise on how bad men were, and continue to be, glorified at the expense of the women they harmed.

  • And in less lengthy pieces: a tribute to the great Mary Higgins Clark; my ruminations on the inherent problems of biopics; more ruminations on a serial killer and the women he harmed; a feature on a 1970 Broadway play with an infamous investor; and a potted history of classic crime fiction via audiobook.

Finally, farewell to John Le Carré, who made the espionage genre his own, and changed the way we thought of the Cold War and geopolitics as a whole. I especially loved what Robert Littell, the other emeritus espionage fiction writer, had to say in Liberation:

Next newsletter in the new year. One of my 2021 goals is to write more of them on a regular basis, and for subscribers, and I’d love to hear from you about what stories and essays I should be pursuing. So if you want in on that:

Stay healthy, stay safe, and when it’s available, get vaccinated.

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: Linda Millar; Party For One Thanksgiving Reading; and More

Dear TCL Readers:

For years I have wondered about Linda Millar, daughter of the crime writers Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar. I have wondered about what it was like to be raised by two prominent, difficult, tormented, troubled people who never hesitated to mine their daughter’s life for their work. I have wondered about her adolescence, which included a hit-and-run accident leading to the death of one boy and the near-death of another, a disappearance that made national headlines (yes, that's Macdonald holding a photo of Linda as part of an appeal to find her during her summer 1959 vanishing), and a life that ended abruptly fifty years ago this month, when she, just thirty-one, died in her sleep.

Most of all, I wondered how Linda could possibly exercise any real autonomy in her life. All that wondering, finally, found fruition in my newest, and longest, CrimeReads feature, on the life and death of Linda Millar, a tragedy in four acts: the accident, the court case, the disappearance, and her death.

Linda’s story has been told before — I relied a lot on Tom Nolan’s masterful 1999 biography of Macdonald for details and quotes — but always in relation to her parents, and largely, her father. Having her story stand alone required taking what Nolan had reported two decades ago and augmenting it with my own research, the court files from her 1956 arrest for vehicular homicide, and interviews with sources Nolan never talked to, including Michael Perona, the boy who survived the accident, now in his late 70s; and Joseph Pagnusat, Linda’s widower, in his late 80s.

Writing about Linda, and the damage she carried her entire life and could not outrun, cannot help but make me rethink my own relationship to Macdonald and Millar’s novels. Each wrote great books that could not have existed if not for Linda’s problems. And it is worth thinking about, and considering, and discussing, what made these books exist, and to make room for Linda Millar’s personhood in the process.

This piece was a real journey, and I’m proud at how it turned out. I hope you will take the time to read it during this week when there is so much, far too much, to reflect upon.

**

I’ll be by myself for Thanksgiving. It was a choice, made weeks in advance because I’d been away for a month (book edits are progressing well, thank you), and because the state we’re in, and about to be, was already clear. There’s no such thing as no-risk, but I’d rather err — and live — on the side of low-risk.

But I won’t be alone, thanks to the tireless organization of Jami Attenberg, who is hosting Party for One, an all-star reading at 3 PM Eastern on Thanksgiving Day, 11/26. Just look at this lineup! The wonderful DC indie Loyalty Books will be selling our books. Please register at this link and look forward to seeing you there, in the midst of your own celebrations.

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

  • Book edits have changed what I’ve wanted to read lately. While I was at MacDowell, I binged on 20th century American writers — Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Eudora Welty — because I needed refuge in language, and in fiction that exceeded my wildest capabilities. It is always a pleasure to read great writing.

  • Upon my return to New York last week, I sought out more contemporary books. The Searcher by Tana French was quite good, especially all of the dialogue scenes between Cal and Trey, and her homage to Westerns paid off in a number of ways. Other books recently enjoyed: The Secret Life of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw; Love Is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar; Lessons in Red by Maria Hummel (not out till June, very much worth the wait); and the unusual co-written This Is Not By Memoir by Andre Gregory and Todd London, which utterly mesmerized me, and is another reminder that the best memoirs and autobiographies get written in the twilight years (Exhibit A, for me, is Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe, a book I will never stop recommending.)

  • Another book I thought very highly of was Becky Cooper’s debut We Keep the Dead Close, as much a true crime book as it is a meditation on whisper networks, sexism in academia, and how women’s stories, still, are criminally overlooked and neglected. I said much more in my review for Airmail earlier this month.

  • On the podcast front, I would strongly suggest subscribing to Jamie Loftus’s Lolita Podcast, a 10-part series examining the novel, the adaptations, the cultural misunderstandings, and much more. I’ll appear in a future episode, as will Alisson Wood (author of the memoir Being Lolita) and other scholars and writers, and some surprise guests, too.

  • I am having significant problems, I must confess, with the second season of Murder Book. Most of my feelings about this iteration of Michael Connelly’s podcast are summed up in a piece I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review on a wholly different podcast, but ultimately, there are two issues: I don’t know what it’s meant to accomplish — it’s not journalism, but it can’t be entertainment — and there is simply no proof, none at all, that Sam Little killed as many women as he is claiming, no matter how hard law enforcement want to paint him as the worst serial killer in American history. (The deja vu to what happened to Henry Lee Lucas is very strong.) The most recent episode, which I listened to early Monday morning, set off alarm bells so loudly I could barely hear anything else.

  • I am saving The Queen’s Gambit Netflix show for this long weekend. But I sure did enjoy these two profiles of Walter Tevis, who wrote the 1983 novel (one of my all-time favorites) that is the source material for the limited series.

The next newsletter will be the last of 2020, Our Pandemic Year. Expect some discussion of favorite books, shows, and podcasts, and much more.

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady

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