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