Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Constative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free (Knopf 2022) tells the wild tale of Edgar Smith, a man who was convicted of the 1957 murder of fifteen-year-old Victoria Zielinski and was sentenced to death.
Smith, however, was never put to death by California’s state penitentiary system, due in part to the endless appeals that his legal team sought, but also because of the influence of William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and a posterchild for the neoconservative movement. It is because of Buckley, who began to correspond with Smith while he was on death row, that Smith received the best legal counsel—through their correspondence, Buckley became convinced that Smith was innocent. It was also due to Buckley’s encouragement and connections that Smith was able to write and publish his 1968 book Brief Against Death while still in prison.The bookclaimed that the case against him was riddled with errors, and that he had been wrongfully convicted. Buckley connected Smith with Alfred A. Knopf editor Sophie Wilkins for Brief Against Death’s editing and publication, and although their correspondence began in a purely professional manner, it quickly devolved into a romantic relationship. What followed was pure chaos: eventually, Smith was released from prison after a long legal battle, but it wouldn’t be long before he found himself jailed once again.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the deep dive that Weinman took into the correspondence between Wilkins and Smith. Although Brief Against Death became a huge success upon publication, the road to publication was a rough one. Weinman tracks the relationship between Wilkins and Smith through their letters in such a way that it is easy to see how Wilkins, a smart and accomplished woman, could be drawn in by Smith, an intelligent but psychopathic man. There are many points in the text where Weinman relays the content of a letter that Wilkins sent to either Buckley or Smith and then comments afterward that Wilkins could see through Smith’s manipulation but was falling for it just the same. As a reader, I really appreciated Weinman’s voice coming through in these moments. Her contextualization not only helped to shape the larger narrative of these letters but helped me to feel a kind of kinship with Wilkins, who was taken in by this relationship almost against her own will. Weinman also does a lot of important work shaping Wilkins as a person for her reader. This work means that Wilkins cannot be viewed as a victim or just the collateral of Smith’s chaos.
Another extremely interesting and well-done aspect of Weinman’s text was her detailed relaying of the correspondence between Buckley and Smith. Weinman does a careful job of contextualizing who Buckley was within the conservative movement and how he too was taken in by this “wrongfully convicted” prisoner on death row. Both Wilkins and Buckley thought they saw a powerful writer and thinker in Smith and wanted to nourish that. However, while they thought they were working on him, he was working on them, and Scoundrel very clearly depicts this slow decent.
Weinman is also quick to call out Smith’s egregious treatment and hatred of women, his manipulation of the justice system for his own gain, and his total inability to self-reflect. There is a journalistic distance in Weinman’s writing, but her own voice and personality comes through in important moments when things like Smith’s treatment of women needs to be reflected upon. As a reader, I felt like there was a perfect balance in the narrative: there was enough contextualization and reflection offered by Weinman that I felt I was being guided through this chaotic story, but there were also moments where Weinman put her foot on the breaks and allowed me to come to my own conclusions. This balance is difficult to strike in any genre, but it is most difficult in true crime. Weinman pulls it off flawlessly.
For its tireless investigation, its detailed analysis, and its careful consideration of a case that seems ready-made for the movies, Scoundrel is a must-read and an important addition to the true crime genre.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.