Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book review: The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, by Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb returns to the setting she’s made her own, the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, in her long-awaited new Ballad novel, a Depression-era tale of murder, the media, and the dangers of regional stereotyping. Neither a traditional mystery nor a tense courtroom drama, as one might expect from the bare-bones storyline, it fits best as a finely wrought character study with an impeccable sense of place.

In November of 1935, journalists from across the eastern seaboard converge on the small coal town of Wise in southwestern Virginia to report on what could be the crime of the century. A beautiful schoolteacher named Erma Morton, accused of killing her father, awaits trial in the county jail. The evidence is circumstantial, and the motive (an argument about a missed curfew) seems unlikely, yet she hasn’t kept her story straight.

Jaded New York journalists, skilled at transforming tragedies into dishy fodder for the masses, know the approach they’ll take before their train even arrives. Veteran reporter Henry Jernigan, who suffers from PTSD after horrors he experienced as a young man in Japan, seeks a way to depict Erma, his ideal of an innocent victim, as a classic literary heroine. While he and Rose Hanelon, a writer of “sob sister” pieces, churn out the lurid stories their readers demand, tubercular photographer Shade Baker charms the locals and searches for the perfect scenic backdrop for a tale of ignorant hill folk and backwoods justice gone wrong.

Only Carl Jennings, a cub reporter from Tennessee on his first big assignment, steers a neutral course, and he does so despite his suspicions. Because they're long on fact and short on spin, his boss isn't happy with his efforts. Seeking clarity, Carl finds a way to invite his young cousin Nora Bonesteel to Wise. Although she can’t control what she sees or when, twelve-year-old Nora has the “Sight,” and her skills could come in handy in his attempts to capture the truth.

In her fictional recounting of the trial of Edith Maxwell, the real-life woman upon whom Erma Morton is based, McCrumb has an agenda as well – a valid one, to be sure, but maybe one too important to risk in a subtler approach. In the prologue, Carl first learns about the techniques used by the media to manipulate the results they want, and this theme echoes repeatedly through the pages. Since things are laid out so clearly from the beginning, readers are denied the chance to gain this insight on their own.

In its other aspects and themes, however, the novel shines. While most of the other titles in her Ballad series depict Appalachian mountain life from the inside, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers shows an outlander’s perspective on its landmarks and people, and McCrumb cleverly reveals how the reality contrasts with the stereotype. Decrepit shacks and uneducated yokums are no more common here than they are anywhere else. Although the residents speak with country accents and keep pretty much to themselves, the truth is that, as prairie native Shade Baker puts it, “everybody lives in a little place,” and there’s less difference between city and country folk than city folk want to believe.

As always, the beautiful mountain setting – the dark hills standing bleak and barren on these cold November days – takes center stage. The Depression-era details feel real, and even the minor characters have interesting back stories that define them and set them apart from one another. It’s a pleasure seeing Nora, the wise woman who’s become a beloved series character, as a young girl discovering the advantages and limitations of her gift. Best of all, McCrumb tells a wonderful story. The pacing never flags over its 300-plus pages, and her narrative voice rings clear, strong, and true.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers was published by St. Martin's Press in June at $24.99 / $29.99 Canada (320pp, 978-0-312-55816-1). In a moment of weakness, despite an ever-increasing TBR, I requested it from LibraryThing's early reviewers program. I'm glad I did.


  1. I recall seeing this book somewhere....can't remember where, but it looked like it had potential. Wow, now I know it does. This one is right up my proverbial alley, so I'll be picking it up.

  2. Thanks for the review! I have read many of Sharyn McCrumb's books and liked them. This sounds like it lacks her black humor- which was hilarious in "If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him"- but I have enjoyed her Appalachian stories before and will now look for this onw.

  3. @Michele - yep, apart from the heavy-handed approach to "how the media exploits their subjects to sell papers" theme (which I'm not arguing with, as the true-life examples she cites are devastating), it was a very good read.

    @LadyDoc There's no black humor that I recall. It's a pretty serious, even sad story, though it fits in with the other Ballad novels as a sort of prequel. I've read most of the others, which is why I felt the need to request this one!

  4. I've read McCrumb before though I don't think I've read any of her Ballad novels. This one sounds good! Would it make sense to start here or should I read them in order of publication?

  5. Hi Avis! All of the novels stand alone, so you can start with any of them. Most of the others have parallel narratives or are wholly contemporary. I especially liked If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.