Book Report on THE DEVIL AMONGST THE LAWYERS
THE DEVIL AMONGST THE LAWYERS by Sharyn McCrumb
A Ballad Novel
Characters: Nora Bonesteel, her cousin Carl Jennings, a reporter, and more reporters.
This book is the latest of Sharyn McCrumb Ballad series. I have read all her Ballads and feel I know all the past ballad characters. This time only one former character makes an appearance, Nora Bonesteel. In previous books Nora was someone with a some years behind her. This time she is 12 years old. Nora has the “gift of sight” (or curse) allowing her to see dead people or see quick glimpses of the future. Nora is shown to be intelligent and wise beyond her age. Even at twelve years old, people respected her. At that early age she had a graceful way about her, or was it just my imagination? The first section of the book has the acknowledgments and statement that this book is a fictionalized version of the 1935 murder trial of Edith Maxwell.
The prologue tells of a traveling circus where an elephant named Big Mary stomped her novice trainer to death in front of shocked on-lookers during the circus’s opening day parade. He had denied her a watermelon. The elephant was hanged by the neck until dead by a railroad crane. It was a gala event which the whole town in Kingsport, Tennessee came to watch. People have a cruel, morbid curiosity. It reminded me of a similar elephant killing that took place in South Georgia about the same time period as Big Mary. It also reminded me of Dumbo the Elephant’s protective mother.
The prologue opened with the book’s chief subject, the press. The power of the press and its ability to rile people’s feelings in the long run was the reason Big Mary was hanged like a conniving murderess.
That reminded me of the USS Maine, Hearst Newspapers, and the Spanish American War. The USS Maine was destroyed in the Havana port in 1898, and I don’t think it was ever decided who’s fault it was. Randolph Hearst’s newspapers scared the American public into thinking it must have been Spain’s espionage; thus, a war was born all because of the blasting words of a newspaper.
Ms. McCrumb's book is not so much about the cast of the killing itself, such as the victim, the accused, and the law, but about the press reporting the trial. The trial takes place in Wise County, Virginia. Ms. McCrumb makes a study of the press members reporting the trial and looks at their private lives.
Of course the press characters are creations by Ms. McCrumb’s mind, giving them a life-force of their own, expounding on each one at a time and what made him or her tick. The book explained how the press can report quotes exactly but yet add some interpretive facial expression that will guide the reader how to feel about the person being quoted.
The press had freedom to paint the country side to guide their readers outlook and opinions. The reading public expected to see shacks and children wearing flour sacks, so that is what they got! Although, the photographer had to search all over the area to find some kids who had some of those kind of clothing in the attic.
The accused lady’s brother was one person that probably had less page space than any other of the main characters, but his actions orchestrated the whole plot. He was a natural born salesman who knew the pulse of the public and how to direct them to do as he wished. He made lemonade out of his father’s death, even at his sister's expense. Being the more worldly family member with more knowledge of money, he took charge of things. He made deals for exclusive interviews, sold family pictures, accepted “donations” for the defense expense, which may or may not have all went to the defense. He seemed to have a price for everything he had to offer. Knowing his sister was pretty and innocent looking, he knew the American public would want to keep up with the story if she was the accused and remained in jail for a while. It smells like a double feature tragedy.
In the book the expression "the Code of the Hills" is mentioned several times. And so did Al Capp in his LI'L ABNER comic strip, the above picture came out of the daily strips in 1940. I think Al Capp, a Bostonian used the code of the hills expression often. It was pointed out in the book that the origins of the expression is above the Mason-Dixon Line.
It was good to have another ballad from Ms. McCrumb as I was afraid she was wandering away from them. A good read.