Early review: The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Sharyn McCrumb) is the tale of a 1935 trial in Wise County, Virginia, which gains national attention because of two factors: the country (or the newspaper business, at least) is hungry for a new sensation now that the Lindbergh kidnapping has run its course – and the defendant is pretty.  The one thing the journalistic community in this book is honest about is that had she been ten years older or half as pretty no one would have paid the least attention outside her own community. 

There was also a movie about to come out called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, set in Appalachia, which was the basis of a raft of clichés and stereotypes about Appalachians that bore little resemblance to reality.  Funny how small things affect lives…

Circumstances being what they are, all major newspapers send representatives to Wise, and … put it this way.  When Annie Le was killed at Yale, representatives from everywhere showed up in New Haven, converging, for one, on the police station.  It was absurd – and it was an intense inconvenience, to put it nicely, for anyone who lived or worked (*waves*) in the area.  Add to the simple inconvenience the fact that the general American public’s perception of Appalachia did not fit the reality, and it wasn’t pretty.  When what they found failed to fit the mold of pre-set American opinion, they … simply manufactured what they needed.  Reading this made me feel like the most credulous naïve gull ever to pick up a newspaper – how remarkably easy it is to manipulate an article to produce the illustration desired, and how remarkably quick the public was – is – to eat it up with a fork. 

The book features three journalists: Henry Jernigan, with his reputation for high-toned writing and literary reference (when he thinks his audience will “get it”); Rose, a “sob sister”, following as all woman reporters of the time do the emotional angle and grateful (as they all are) that the girl really is attractive; both Henry and Rose are from a major newspaper (though not as major as the syndicate that paid for exclusive access to the defendant, in a move that stinks to high heaven from every angle).  The third journalist is Carl, a nineteen-year-old just beginning his journalistic career at a tiny hometown paper, and hoping that this will be his break. 

There is also Shade, the photographer sent with Henry and Rose, who goes out seeking broken down cabins to take pictures of for the story (preferably one with a pig on the porch) and has a terrible hard time finding one; and Nora Bonesteel, here aged 12, the ghost-visited old lady who is the common thread through the Ballad novels. 

 The Trail of the Lonesome Pine set the stage, and the play that went on in Wise County had to be made to fit those props and backdrops that already existed in Americans’ minds.  Sure, they could report the simple facts – and Carl tries to, only to learn why it’s a terrible idea. 

The writing is beautiful.  (Hardly an adverb in sight!)  The characters – from the old men who try to give Carl a bit of a break to the ones we spend the most time with – are wonderful – Henry with his Japanese ghosts, and Rose with her “dog fox” light o’ love Danny, and Carl with his clear-eyed read of the facts battling with what would further his career and get him out of the sticks.  And Nora, with her gift that no one understands … I found the ending disturbing, in a way, because it fell out so very differently from what I still – credulous, naïve gull that I am – hoped would be the result of a properly held trial covered by experienced reporters. 

The story of the elephant in the prologue is true, I’m sorry to say.  The story of Erma Morton is true, or the basic facts are – her name was really Edith Maxwell.  I’m sorry to say that, too, because that means that the rest of it is probably close to truth.  A beautiful, sad, disheartening book – and I’ve never read a more stinging indictment of the newspaper world.

One thing I feel a bit silly admitting – I can’t find a source for the title.  It doesn’t seem to fit very well, to me – unless the devil amongst the lawyers is meant to be the ladies and gentlemen of the press …

Quotes:

Gettin’ above your raisin’, are ye, Carl?
A-lord, he hoped so.  People always meant that remark as a dig, but Carl couldn’t see why they would think it so.  His own never-expressed reply was: If some of us didn’t get above our raising, then all of us would still be living in caves.

But Carl was different.  To hear his family tell it, he had stuck his nose in a book from the time he could life one, and he would have considered it no punishment at all to be locked in a small room alone with a stack of books.  It would be a long time before he missed people in general.  At least the ones you found in books made sense.  [Sounds familiar … ]

Rose: “I don’t care what the world thinks.  I just want to live a few glorious days with my dog fox, before I am as forgotten as yesterday’s headlines.”

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