Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers marks Sharyn McCrumb's return to her popular Appalachian Ballad series, the books featuring Nora Bonesteel, one of several members of the Bonesteel family gifted with "the Sight." Fans of the series have had to wait longer than usual for the next Ballad novel because McCrumb's last several books have been set in the world of NASCAR, not a setting that appeals to everyone, me included. Can it really have been eight years? Anyway, it is nice finally to have a new Sharyn McCrumb novel for the rest of us.

This one, though, is a little different from earlier books in the series. It is based on a real life 1935 murder trial that took place in Wise County, Virginia, a case that seemed perfectly cast to help big city newspapers turn a nice profit on the crime. A young woman, a pretty schoolteacher who had escaped the hills long enough to earn a college degree, is accused of having bludgeoned her father to death. Now, major East Coast newspapers have sent reporters to little Wise County to milk the story for all it might be worth to them.

Among the reporters in town to cover Emma Morton's trial is Carl Jenkins, cousin to 12-year-old Nora Bonesteel, who is nervously working the first big story of his budding newspaper reporter career. Jenkins, though, is overwhelmed by the approach that his big city reporter heroes are taking to the story. What they are writing about Emma Morton, her family, and life in Wise County only vaguely resembles the truth as Jenkins sees it. Consequently, what Jenkins writes for his own newspaper is so different from what is appearing in the big papers that his own editors begin to wonder if he is really in Wise County at all.

Jenkins, desperately looking for an angle he can exploit well enough to save his job, and hoping that young Nora's second sight can discover the truth about the murder, asks her to come to Wise County to speak with the accused killer. Therein, lies much of the fun of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers. Longtime readers of the series will delight in meeting Nora Bonesteel before she became the wise old lady they are already know so well.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers surprisingly focuses more on the reporters in town to cover the trial than it does on the accused or her victim. McCrumb's main theme, in fact, is that big city reporters (even in 1935) have preconceived notions about small town Southern life and those who live it - and that they will not let facts change their minds. The book's three main characters are New York City reporters, two writers and a photographer, who know the story they will present even before they get to town for the trial. Because the accused is pretty, they will portray her as sweet young woman being persecuted by locals who believe she has grown too uppity for her own good. To sell this version, they will use various writing "tricks," all explained in detail by McCrumb, and will present life and attitudes in Wise County more as if the trial were taking place in 1885 than in 1935.

The whole premise would have worked much better if McCrumb had not been so heavy handed in making her point. Over and over again, she has various characters explain how the truth is being ignored or manipulated by the big city reporters to their own benefit - truth be damned. A little subtlety would have gone a long way in making readers feel that McCrumb had faith in their ability to "get it" without all her extra help. I am, however, so pleased to have a new Ballad novel that I will forgive that little insult. Fans of the series are likely to enjoy this one and hope they do not have to wait so long for the next one.

No comments:

Post a Comment