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McCrumb gets sidetracked in book about famous trial

Several months ago, I reviewed a marvelous non-fiction work by Sharon Hatfield titled Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell. Hatfield’s book is a comprehensive account of a 1935 West Virginia murder which became a “cause celebre” that drew the attention of the national media, the Women’s Rights Movement and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In truth, the murder was a rather prosaic event: an attractive young school teacher living near Wise, W.V., had a violent argument with her father because he objected to her late return home from a night out with her friends. The father ended up dying on the floor from a head wound and Edith Maxwell was arrested and charged with murder. The trials dragged on for years and Edith Maxwell was not released from prison until 1941.

Now comes Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, based on the Edith Maxwell case, and it quickly becomes evident that McCrumb has an axe to grind. Specifically, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers addresses the devious role of journalism in any and all cases that occur in Appalachia. Although the primary focus is on the Edith Maxwell case, McCrumb takes the opportunity to catalogue other instances where journalists not only distorted the events in order to sell their stories to major newspapers, but actually influenced verdicts and damaged innocent people. Examples include the notorious “elephant hanging” near Irwin, Tenn. (1916); the famed Scopes “monkey trial”  in Dayton, Tenn. (1925) and the tragic Floyd Collins incident in Kentucky (1926).

McCrumb, who is an accomplished author of Appalachian novels that frequently blend folklore and history with a tantalizing dash of the supernatural  (one of her recurring characters is gifted with “second sight”), has no trouble at all in transposing the entire cast of the Edith Maxwell case into a “fictional” personage. Edith Maxwell becomes Erma Morton, and Edith’s clever, self-promoting brother, Earl, is reincarnated as Harley Morton, who takes charge of his sister’s defense and immediately signs a contract with the Hearst papers, giving them sole rights to her story. As a consequence, all of the other journalists, including emissaries from a variety of “women’s rights” organizations, are only given limited access to Erma Morton.

However, the major emphasis is not on the accused.  Erma remains a remote and mysterious character until the culminating pages of The Devil Among the Lawyers, when she finally reveals a vague version of “what really happened.” Instead, McCrumb turns her attention to journalists — a collection of a half-dozen news hounds who run the gamut from inept but well-meaning (Carl Jennings) to purple-prosed sob sisters (Rose Hanelon) and jaded yellow journalists (Luster Swan). This motley crew arrives in Wise with motives that are as diverse as their characters.

Carl Jennings is fresh out of college and painfully aware of his lack of experience. Lacking the expense accounts (and the cynicism) of his worldly cohorts, he trusts his empathy for Emma Morton, believing that they share a common background. In addition, he feels he has “an ace up his sleeve” since he has a relative — Nora, a cousin — who shares the Bonesteel gift of “second sight.” He has managed to bring her to Wise to work in the kitchen of the boarding house where he stays. Is it possible that Nora will perceive the truth about Emma?

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Like the majority of out-of-state journalists, Rose Hanelon arrives in Wise with preconceived ideas about the region. However, despite her cynical evaluation of the local populace (“ignorant and backward hillbillies”), Rose has become adept at writing stories about tragic young women who are victimized by brutish males. With the assistance of the photographer, Shade Baker, she sometimes creates fake photographs of impoverished mountain children to add pathos to her reports. Yet, despite her unethical approach to the Emma Morton trial, Rose emerges as a lonely, foolish woman who is hopelessly caught up in a doomed romance with a young, daredevil pilot.

Henry Jernigan emerges as the most memorable of McCrumb’s journalists. In addition to being to being a kind of effete snob who struggles to hold himself apart from his callous and vulgar companions, Henry resembles the noted journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who renounced his American citizenship and devoted his life to pursuing Japanese art and culture ... However, Henry Jernigan’s newly discovered paradise only lasts until a tragic event (a devastating earthquake/fire and the death of his dearest friend) forced him to leave Japan. Although he ekes out a livelihood by writing sophisticated articles filled with classical allusions and flowery bombast, he seems a lost and tortured soul. Certainly, he seems out of his element in Wise, West Virginia.

One of the most moving passages in The Devil Amongst the Lawyers describes Henry’s discovery that he “is not alone.” He is constantly accompanied by the spirit of a young Japanese woman who died many years ago in Japan ... a spirit that he cannot see. However, his ghostly companion is seen by others, those who have “second sight,” including Carl Jennings’ cousin, Nora.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, like Sharon Hatfield’s Never Seen the Moon, provides extensive evidence that journalists who were sent to cover sensational events in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s tended to rely heavily on a singular literary work: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr. Published in 1908, this popular novel/play/film/outdoor drama was filled with graphic descriptions of violent, ignorant men and helpless victimized women.  Despite the fact that Appalachian culture and its people had changed radically in the intervening years, unethical journalists continued to use the same stereotypes. As one critic commented on the newspaper articles about Edith Maxwell’s murder trial, many of the reports were written by men who never left the hotel in Wise. They simply defined the people with “a jar of moonshine in one hand and a copy of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in the other.”

As a result of McCrumb’s emphasis on the role of unethical journalism in the Maxwell case, the final outcome of the novel seems anticlimactic, perhaps even irrelevant. In essence, McCrumb cracks the whip and her characters dance in accordance to her wishes. Unlike the vivid characters in many of her novels, the cast of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers appears stylized and one-dimensional. Perhaps that is the price for writing a novel that is more an ethical preachment than a tense murder mystery.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb. St Martin’s Press, 2010. 320 pages

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