The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Ballad Series #8)

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Overview

“Ms. McCrumb writes with quiet fire and maybe a little mountain magic. . . . She plucks the mysteries from people’s lives and works these dark narrative threads into Appalachian legends older than the hills. Like every true storyteller, she has the Sight.”—The New York Times Book Review

In 1935, a beautiful young schoolteacher is accused of murdering her coal-miner father in

a Virginia mountain community....

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The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Ballad Series #8)

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Overview

“Ms. McCrumb writes with quiet fire and maybe a little mountain magic. . . . She plucks the mysteries from people’s lives and works these dark narrative threads into Appalachian legends older than the hills. Like every true storyteller, she has the Sight.”—The New York Times Book Review

In 1935, a beautiful young schoolteacher is accused of murdering her coal-miner father in

a Virginia mountain community.

National journalists descend on Wise County, intent upon exonerating the defendant, and on stereotyping the mountain community to satisfy their Depression-era readers.

            But local cub reporter Carl Jennings writes what he sees: an ordinary town and a defendant who is probably guilty.

The novel resonates with the present: an economic depression; a deadly Japanese earthquake; the rise of political fanatics; and a media culture turning news stories into soap operas for the diversion of the masses.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is a literary tour de force, examining social issues that go well beyond the fate of one defendant. It is a testament to Sharyn McCrumb’s lyrical and poetic writing about the mountain South.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Devil Amongst the Lawyers:

“The story begins with a train ride, a magic carpet that carries us back to the year 1935 and into the heart of a famous murder trial. As we head for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, we get to know the characters, those journalists and photographers and sensation-seekers who always turn up for a good spectacle. 

“Sharyn McCrumb re-creates this time and place with such precision, the reader forgets that seventy-five years have passed since that faraway event in that isolated place where the outer world clashes with superstition and folklore. This is storytelling as those Celtic bards meant it to be: lyrical, haunting, and truly unforgettable.” —Cathie Pelletier, author of The Funeral Makers and Running the Bulls

“Wow! Sharyn McCrumb is not just a writer—-in fact, she’s a conjurer, a genius, a wordsmith, an entertainer, a wit, a scholar, a wise woman, and a storyteller of the first rank. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is flat-out brilliant and transcendent, a book that gets everything exactly right. Simply put, novels don’t come any better than this.” —Martin Clark, author of The Legal Limit and The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living 

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is a superb novel that, once started, is so well written and so expertly researched that readers will find it impossible to put down. It is also a scathing indictment of how Appalachia has been, and continues to be, stereotyped by a supposedly objective media. Bravo!” —Ron Rash, author of Serena

More Praise for Sharyn McCrumb:

“There are few writers today who are able to blend past and present, tradition and law, legends and headlines in a wholly credible fashion— Tony Hillerman springs  inevitably to mind.  Sharyn McCrumb is another; her widely acclaimed Ballad Series is one of the finest being written today.” —Bookpage

“McCrumb provides fresh evidence that there is no one quite like her among present-day writers. No one better, either.” —San Diego Union-Tribune

“Ms. McCrumb writes with quiet fire and maybe a little mountain magic…She plucks the mysteries from people’s lives and works these dark narrative threads into Appalachian legends older than the hills. Like every true storyteller, she has the Sight.” —The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly
In 1935, the case of an Appalachian schoolteacher arrested for murdering her father becomes a national news story, seized on by the press for its sensationalism and the opportunity to mock the rural inhabitants involved. Competing with a brigade of city journalists is novice Tennessee newspaperman Carl Jenkins, whose obsession with the truth leads him to call in his cousin Nora, gifted with second sight—but what, exactly, can he report with no concrete evidence? The latest in McCrumb’s Appalachian Ballad series (after 2003’s Ghost Riders) is decidedly mixed; McCrumb’s grasp of setting and character instantly immerses readers in the worlds of both the sympathetic locals and the cynical city press. Her plot, part mystery and part cautionary tale, is passable, but leaves nothing for readers to work out on their own. Dialogue, which stretches for authentic, often feels awkward and stilted; though fans will be familiar with the style, new readers will likely be frustrated. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
Nora Bonesteel's first case finds the seer (The Songcatcher, 2001, etc.) in full possession of her equivocal gift at age 12. After the police in tiny Pound, Va., arrest coal miner Pollock Morton's wife and daughter for beating him to death, they turn the wife loose and charge the daughter with murder. There's no obvious reason why a schoolteacher like Erma Morton would have capped an argument over her curfew by bashing her father's head in, but the testimony of a neighbor who overheard the quarrel and was turned away from the door until it was too late to save the victim is damning. All this intrigue, however, mostly bubbles in the background, for McCrumb (St. Dale, 2005, etc.) is less interested in what really happened than in what the rapacious journalists who've converged on the little town are making of the case. Burned-out reporter Henry Jernigan, haunted by the ghost of a girl he met a decade ago while living in Japan, and sob sister Rose Hanelon, haunted by her doomed romance with a callow aviator, battle in vain for face time with the defendant, whose slick brother Harley has sold her story to the Hearst syndicate in return for the money to mount her defense. Small-town young cub Carl Jennings, chasing his first big story, sees and resists the rush to turn Erma into a persecuted innocent but finds that the bare truth doesn't make an equally compelling story. So he brings in his cousin Nora to help out his landlady-and, he hopes, use her second sight to give him a decisive edge over his more seasoned and ruthless competitors. Though the fact-based story is set in 1935, the pressures sound very contemporary, and that's McCrumb's point. This time, though, the modern parallels, which tell you pretty much what you already knew about crime, fame and the media, are the weakest link in this lustrous chain.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312573621
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Series: Ballad Series , #8
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 694,645
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharyn McCrumb
Sharyn McCrumb is the author of several bestselling novels, including The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, which was nominated for a Southeast Booksellers Association award. She has received awards for Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature and Southern Writer of the Year. Her books have been named notable books of the year by both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She lives in Virginia.
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Read an Excerpt

ONE

NARROW ROAD TO A FAR PROVINCE

 

Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.

—MATSUO BASH?

 

Two hours west of Washington, Henry Jernigan finally gave up on his book. This Mr. John Fox, Jr., might have been a brilliant author—although personally he doubted it—but the clattering of the train shook the page so much that he found himself reading the same tiresome line over and over until his head began to ache. The November chill seemed to seep through the sides of the railroad car, and even in his leather gloves and overcoat, he did not feel warm.

He thought of taking a fortifying nip of brandy from the silver flask secreted in his coat pocket, but he was afraid of depleting his supply, when he was by no means sure that he could obtain another bottle in the benighted place that was his destination. Prohibition had been repealed eighteen months ago, but he had heard that some of these backwoods places still banned liquor by local ordinance. He repressed a shudder. Imagine trying to live in such a place, sober.

A man lay dead in some one-horse town in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Well, what of it?

The only thing that made death interesting was the details.

In point of fact, the death of a stranger no longer interested Henry Jernigan at all. In all his years on the job he had seen too many permutations of death to take much of an interest anymore, but even if the emotion was lacking, the skill to recount it was still there in force. Jernigan would supply the telling particulars of the story; his readers could furnish the tears. All that really mattered to him these days was a decent dinner, a clean and quiet place to sleep, and a flask of spirits to insulate him from the tedium of it all.

He brushed a speck of cigar ash from the sleeve of his black wool coat. Henry Jernigan may have been sent to the back of beyond by an unfeeling philistine editor, but by god that didn’t mean he had to go there looking like a yokel. True, his starched linen shirt was sweaty and rumpled from the vicissitudes of a crowded winter train ride, and his shoes, hand-stitched leather from a cobbler in Baltimore, glistened with mud and coal grit, but he fancied that the essential worth of his wardrobe, and thus of himself, would shine through the shabbiness of the suit and the dust of the road. Henry Jernigan was a gentleman. A gentleman of the press, perhaps, but still a gentleman.

He looked without favor at the book in his lap, and with a sigh he closed it, marking his place only because he was reading Fox’s novel for research, not for plea sure. After sixty interminable pages he had begun to think of the book as “The Trail of the Loathsome Pine,” a quip he planned to spring on his colleagues as soon as he met up with them. At last winter’s trial in New Jersey, clever but ugly Rose Hanelon had made a similar play on words with a Gene Stratton Porter title. When the family governess had committed suicide, Rose took to referring to her as the “Girl of the Lindbergh-Lost.”

No doubt Rose was on her way here, as well. He thought of going to look for her on his way to the dining car when it was closer to dinnertime. At least one need not lack for civilized conversation, even in the hinterlands.

He knew all the big wheels on the major papers, of course. The places changed, but the faces and the greasy diner food stayed the same, no matter where they went. He didn’t see those smug jackals from the New York Journal American, though. That was odd. The word was that the Hearst syndicate had paid for an exclusive on this trial, so he had expected to see their people. Either they had already arrived, or they had what they needed and went home, relying on local stringers to send them the facts of the trial.

Henry’s paper seemed ready to fight them for dominance of the story, though. They had even assigned one of the World Tele gram photographers to accompany him to this godforsaken place.

Rose Hanelon of the Herald Tribune would be here, though. Henry was fond of Rose. While technically she was a competitor, they got along well, and he flattered himself that his serious readers and the sentimental followers of her sob sister columns were worlds apart, so that, in fact, no rivalry existed. He even looked the other way when Rose slipped Shade Baker a few bucks to take photos for her, too.

The brotherhood of the Fourth Estate: it was as close to a family as Henry had these days. He went back to thinking up clever epigrams to entertain Shade and Rose at dinner.

They never printed their heartless little jests, of course. Mustn’t disillusion their readers, who saw them as omnipotent and benevolent deities meddling in the affairs of mortals. At least, Henry liked to think his readers imagined him in such an exalted position, if only for a few fleeting hours before they wrapped the potato peels in his newspaper column, or set it down on the kitchen floor for the new puppy. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The train clattered on, and he stared out at the barren fields edged by a forest of skeletal trees. In just such a landscape, the broken body of a child had been unearthed.

Now that had been a story. A golden-haired baby kidnapped . . . Father a dashing pi lot, who gained worldwide celebrity as the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic . . . Mother an ambassador’s daughter . . . Frantic searches . . . Ransom demands, and then all hopes dashed when the child’s remains were found in nearby woods in a shallow grave . . . that story had everything. Wealth, culture, celebrity, tragedy, and since it had all happened in New Jersey, a comfortable distance from Washington and New York, the reporters had been able to make excursions back to the city.

That had been the perfect assignment. All of them thought so. A case that transfixed the world, enough drama and glamour to sell a year’s worth of newspapers, all set in a civilized locale convenient for the national press. And for a grand finale: the execution of the guilty man, a foreigner—a detested German—who had been caught with the ransom money hidden in his garage. If they had invented the tale out of whole cloth, they couldn’t have done better.

In this case they wouldn’t be so lucky. This time a backwoods coal miner had got his head bashed in, and because the culprit—or the defendant, anyhow—was a beautiful, educated girl, the newspaper editors thought that Mr. and Mrs. America would eat it up. Provided, of course, it was served to them in a palatable stew of sex, drama, and exotic local color. Henry Jernigan was just the chef to concoct this tasty dish.

He directed his gaze out the window, hoping to soothe the pain in his temples with the calming effect of the austere view: more brown, empty fields, bare hillsides of leafless trees, and beyond that the distant haze of blue mountains, indistinguishable from the lowlying clouds at the horizon.

In the stubbled ruin of a cornfield, he saw a ragged scarecrow swaying in the wind, which summoned to mind a favorite verse from the Japanese poet Bash?: “A weathered skeleton in windswept fields of memory . . .” He looked around at his fellow passengers, bundled up in drab clothes, sleeping or staring off into space. Surely he was the only person present conversant with the works of Bash?. Yes, once Henry Jernigan had possessed a soul above the cheap pratings of a tabloid newspaper, and in his cups he still could quote from memory the masters of literature from Li Po to Cervantes. But what good had it done him?

Scarecrows in dead land.

The chiaroscuro vista sweeping past him only succeeded in further quelling his spirits. Jernigan hoped he liked the countryside as much as the next man, but as a city-dweller born and bred, he preferred nature in cultivated moderation: a nice arboretum, for example. This temperate jungle spread out before him, tangled underbrush and dense forest, hedged by dark, forbidding mountains, simply reinforced his belief that he was leaving civilization. At least, he was leaving single malt scotch and the Paris-trained chefs of Manhattan’s restaurants, which amounted to the same thing.

It was the fault of Mr. John Fox, Jr., that he was on this journey in the first place—all the more reason to loathe the man’s book. Still, he would persevere, hoping that if he kept reading, the text might provide him with a few wisps of atmosphere to spice up the story he would have to write. The book, first published in 1908 and popular again now only because of the film currently being made of it, took place in the 1890s, but surely nothing had changed around here in the ensuing four decades. Besides, where else could you turn for a primer on the backwoods culture of the Southern mountains? He needed some telling details, a few quaint folk customs, some strands of irony to elevate the sordid little tale to the level of tragedy.

Details were Henry Jernigan’s specialty. Well, all of their specialties, really. Each of his colleagues-cum-rivals, all of whom were probably holed up somewhere on this interminable train, had his own forte in transforming an ordinary account of human vice and folly into an epic saga that would sell newspapers. Jernigan’s own skill lay in framing an incident in the classical perspective, so that every jilted lover was a thwarted Romeo, every murdered wife a Desdemona. He regaled his readers with his cultural observations, making allusions to historical parallels and literary counterparts, working in a telling quote to elevate the tone of even the most sordid little murder. High-brow stuff, so that the readers could tell themselves they weren’t wallowing in the squalor of poverty and misery; they were gaining a new perspective on the essential truths of classical literature.

He was lucky to work for a newspaper that could afford such literary extravagance. Some of his colleagues had to stagger along on blood and gore accounts not far removed from the True Detective pulps, and the sob sisters had to manufacture a beautiful and innocent heroine in every dung heap of a case they covered. He had heard that there were reporters who could do the job cold sober, but he wouldn’t like to try it.

His gaze returned to the infernal book on his lap, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Absolute hokum and melodrama: Harvard engineer romances pure mountain gal against the backdrop of a feud. Its author had much to answer for. Of course, except for the geographic location, the novel was not even remotely connected to the death in question, but if Fox’s book had not existed, Henry Jernigan would be back in New York or Washington, enjoying a leisurely dinner in convivial company, instead of hurtling through the Virginia outback along with the rest of the carrion squad.

Bring out your dead, he thought. The phrase was apt. It made him think, not of plague corpses on London carts, but of the influenza victims in the Philadelphia of his youth. He shuddered, and pushed away the image. He and his colleagues scavenged not on carrion, but on the hearts of the victims: the loved ones of the slain; the family of the accused; and all the peripheral little souls whose lives were besmirched by the crime of the moment.

He was so pleased with the erudition of this observation that he looked around the car for some fellow sufferer to share it with, but the only other colleague he recognized was his assigned photographer, Shade Baker, slouched down in a window seat, with his hat over his eyes. Pity. Epigrams would be wasted on him. Baker was a son of the Midwestern prairie, an artist of blood and bone, using his artistry to illuminate the bruises, the blood-stained bodies, and the pathetic artifacts of the crime scene.

Last year Shade’s photos had illustrated the lurid stories that had waxed poetic over the battered body of little Charlie Lindbergh, unearthed from that shallow grave in the Jersey woods, so heartbreakingly close to the house from which he was taken. The Lindbergh case was the last time they had all been together.

Elsewhere, Luster Swann, whose gutter press tabloid made Henry shudder, was probably chatting up the most angelic-looking girl on the train, wherever she was. Swann, a gaunt bloodhound of a man, was invariably drawn to vacant-eyed blondes who looked as if they had just wandered out of the choir loft. The irony was that there was no greater misogynist than Luster Swann, who thought all women either treacherous or wanton, or occasionally both. He seemed always to hope to find some ethereal innocent who would convince him otherwise, but he never succeeded, which was just as well, because his journalistic specialty was a judicious mixture of cynicism and righteous indignation. To Swann every female defendant was a scheming Jezebel, and every weeping victim a little tramp who deserved what ever she got.

Jernigan scanned the car one more time, but no familiar faces gazed back at him. None of the others were around, but they might turn up later on in the dining car.

Oh God, he needed a drink.

 

“BE YOU HEADED for Knoxville?”

Jernigan started out of a daze as if the book itself had spoken, but when he turned in the direction of the voice, he found that his seat-mate, the rabbity man in the rumpled brown suit, who had snored most of the way from Washington, had now awakened, bright-eyed and in a talkative mood.

Jernigan shook his head. “Knoxville? No, not as far as that.” He forced himself to respond in kind. “How about yourself, sir?”

“Oh, I’m going up home to Wise. Been to see my sister and her family up in the big city.” The little man looked at him appraisingly, taking note of Jernigan’s well-cut suit and the gold clasp on his silk rep tie. A slow grin spread across his face. “Coal company business, then? Like as not you’ll be headed up to Wise County, I reckon, to visit the mines.”

Jernigan inclined his head. “My business does take me to Wise County. Would you be a resident there yourself?”

“Born and bred,” said the man happily. “I’m not in the mines, though, no sir. My business is timber. I hope you’ve made arrangements for accommodations in the town already. Lodging should be at a premium this week.”

“In a village in the back of beyond?” Henry’s murmur conveyed polite skepticism. “Why should it be crowded, especially at this bleak time of year?”

The man blinked at him, astounded by this display of ignorance. “Not crowded?” he spluttered. “Did you not hear about the murder trial that’s about to start up there?”

Henry Jernigan was careful to set his face into a mask of polite boredom. “Why, no,” he said with as much indifference as he could muster. “A murder trial, you say? I don’t suppose it amounts to much, but if you’d care to pass the time, you may tell me something about it.”

Had he identified himself as a reporter and attempted to question this garrulous stranger about the local scandal, no doubt the man would have clammed up and refused to utter a single word on the subject, but by implying that this singular news was of no consequence to him, he had ensured that he would be regaled with every salacious detail the fellow could muster. Odd creatures, human beings, but entirely predictable, once you had learned the patterns of behavior. He contrived to look suitably indifferent to the tale.

“A man got murdered up there in Wise County back in the summer,” his seatmate declared.

Jernigan stifled a yawn. “Nobody important, I daresay?”

“Well, sir, it happened in Pound, which is barely big enough to be called a village, so everybody there is somebody, if you catch my drift. Anyhow, it wasn’t no ordinary killing, no sir.”

“Gunned down by some feuding neighbor, I suppose? Or felled in a drunken brawl?” said Jernigan. He opened his book again.

“Now that’s just where you’re wrong,” said his seatmate, eager to be the bearer of scandalous news. “You’ll scarcely credit it, but they went and arrested the fellow’s wife and daughter for the crime. They let Mrs. Morton go right away, decided not to prosecute her, but they charged the daughter with first-degree murder. Yes, sir, they did. And her the prettiest little thing you ever did see, and ladylike, to boot. Been to college and then came back and taught school up home. Last girl in the world you’d expect to do a thing like that. Last . . . girl . . . in . . . the . . . world.”

“Pretty, you say,” said Jernigan, raising his eyebrows with polite disbelief. “And by that I suppose you mean ‘passably attractive for a village maiden.’ Fine blond hair, good teeth, but perhaps she has the face of an amiable sheep, and the overstuffed body of a dray horse? Ankles like birch trees?”

“Now that’s just where you’re wrong, sir,” said the man, who felt that being the authority on this local sensation made him temporarily equal to this superior-looking gentleman. “Pretty, I said, sir, and pretty I meant. Miss Erma Morton is a slip of a girl, dark-haired with big brown eyes, more doe than dray horse. Just twenty-one years old. She has a quiet, ladylike way about her, too. She could be in the pictures, I’m telling you for a fact.”

So the accused was a beauty. Henry Jernigan relaxed a little, relieved to have the early descriptions of the accused confirmed in person by a local source. Stories about pretty girls in trouble practically wrote themselves.

“Indeed?” he said. “But why would a lovely and learned young woman such as you describe resort to the killing of her own father? The poor creature was deranged, I suppose.” He coughed discreetly and lowered his voice. “I have heard it said that venereal disease can—”

The little man was shocked. “Why, no such thing! There was no trouble of that kind, I assure you, and I’ve known her all her life.”

“Friend of the family, are you?” said Jernigan, scenting blood.

“No, I wouldn’t go as far as that, but we knew her to speak to, same as anybody would. There are no strangers thereabouts. And she was always a good girl. Now I don’t say the young lady didn’t have a mind of her own, going off and getting educated like she did, and maybe her father was apt to forget that she was a grown girl paying rent to live there. They say he wanted to lay down the law like he did when she was a little girl. Curfews and such.”

Henry Jernigan was all polite astonishment. “The refined young lady killed her father over a curfew?”

The authority shook his head sadly, obviously sorry that he had ever attempted to plow the stony field of this discussion. “Well, we don’t know that she killed him at all,” he said. “There were no witnesses. As I said, the case is just about to go to trial. It will all turn out to be some tragic misunderstanding, like as not.”

Jernigan nodded. With his luck, that would indeed turn out to be the case. Still, with backwoods justice, you never could tell what the outcome would be, guilt notwithstanding. In 1916 they had hanged a circus elephant at the railroad yards in Erwin, Tennessee, less than a hundred miles from his current destination. He had heard of the case when he interviewed a Tennessee congressman, and ever since then he had dined out on that story, dramatizing the incident for his listeners over cigars and brandy, and always ending with the solemn admonition: “So, gentlemen, if you are ever charged with murder in the great state of Tennessee, do not plead elephant. It is not a valid defense.”

 

Excerpted from The Devil Amongst The Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb.

Copyright  2010 by Sharyn McCrumb.

Published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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First Chapter

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

A Ballad Novel
By Sharyn McCrumb

Thomas Dunne Books

Copyright © 2010 Sharyn McCrumb
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312558161

ONE
NARROW ROAD TO A FAR PROVINCE
 
Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.
—MATSUO BASH?
 
Two hours west of Washington, Henry Jernigan finally gave up on his book. This Mr. John Fox, Jr., might have been a brilliant author—although personally he doubted it—but the clattering of the train shook the page so much that he found himself reading the same tiresome line over and over until his head began to ache. The November chill seemed to seep through the sides of the railroad car, and even in his leather gloves and overcoat, he did not feel warm.
He thought of taking a fortifying nip of brandy from the silver flask secreted in his coat pocket, but he was afraid of depleting his supply, when he was by no means sure that he could obtain another bottle in the benighted place that was his destination. Prohibition had been repealed eighteen months ago, but he had heard that some of these backwoods places still banned liquor by local ordinance. He repressed a shudder. Imagine trying to live in such a place, sober.
A man lay dead in some one-horse town in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Well, what of it?
The only thing that made death interesting was the details.
In point of fact, the death of a stranger no longer interested Henry Jernigan at all. In all his years on the job he had seen too many permutations of death to take much of an interest anymore, but even if the emotion was lacking, the skill to recount it was still there in force. Jernigan would supply the telling particulars of the story; his readers could furnish the tears. All that really mattered to him these days was a decent dinner, a clean and quiet place to sleep, and a flask of spirits to insulate him from the tedium of it all.
He brushed a speck of cigar ash from the sleeve of his black wool coat. Henry Jernigan may have been sent to the back of beyond by an unfeeling philistine editor, but by god that didn’t mean he had to go there looking like a yokel. True, his starched linen shirt was sweaty and rumpled from the vicissitudes of a crowded winter train ride, and his shoes, hand-stitched leather from a cobbler in Baltimore, glistened with mud and coal grit, but he fancied that the essential worth of his wardrobe, and thus of himself, would shine through the shabbiness of the suit and the dust of the road. Henry Jernigan was a gentleman. A gentleman of the press, perhaps, but still a gentleman.
He looked without favor at the book in his lap, and with a sigh he closed it, marking his place only because he was reading Fox’s novel for research, not for plea sure. After sixty interminable pages he had begun to think of the book as “The Trail of the Loathsome Pine,” a quip he planned to spring on his colleagues as soon as he met up with them. At last winter’s trial in New Jersey, clever but ugly Rose Hanelon had made a similar play on words with a Gene Stratton Porter title. When the family governess had committed suicide, Rose took to referring to her as the “Girl of the Lindbergh-Lost.”
No doubt Rose was on her way here, as well. He thought of going to look for her on his way to the dining car when it was closer to dinnertime. At least one need not lack for civilized conversation, even in the hinterlands.
He knew all the big wheels on the major papers, of course. The places changed, but the faces and the greasy diner food stayed the same, no matter where they went. He didn’t see those smug jackals from the New York Journal American, though. That was odd. The word was that the Hearst syndicate had paid for an exclusive on this trial, so he had expected to see their people. Either they had already arrived, or they had what they needed and went home, relying on local stringers to send them the facts of the trial.
Henry’s paper seemed ready to fight them for dominance of the story, though. They had even assigned one of the World Tele gram photographers to accompany him to this godforsaken place.
Rose Hanelon of the Herald Tribune would be here, though. Henry was fond of Rose. While technically she was a competitor, they got along well, and he flattered himself that his serious readers and the sentimental followers of her sob sister columns were worlds apart, so that, in fact, no rivalry existed. He even looked the other way when Rose slipped Shade Baker a few bucks to take photos for her, too.
The brotherhood of the Fourth Estate: it was as close to a family as Henry had these days. He went back to thinking up clever epigrams to entertain Shade and Rose at dinner.
They never printed their heartless little jests, of course. Mustn’t disillusion their readers, who saw them as omnipotent and benevolent deities meddling in the affairs of mortals. At least, Henry liked to think his readers imagined him in such an exalted position, if only for a few fleeting hours before they wrapped the potato peels in his newspaper column, or set it down on the kitchen floor for the new puppy. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The train clattered on, and he stared out at the barren fields edged by a forest of skeletal trees. In just such a landscape, the broken body of a child had been unearthed.
Now that had been a story. A golden-haired baby kidnapped . . . Father a dashing pi lot, who gained worldwide celebrity as the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic . . . Mother an ambassador’s daughter . . . Frantic searches . . . Ransom demands, and then all hopes dashed when the child’s remains were found in nearby woods in a shallow grave . . . that story had everything. Wealth, culture, celebrity, tragedy, and since it had all happened in New Jersey, a comfortable distance from Washington and New York, the reporters had been able to make excursions back to the city.
That had been the perfect assignment. All of them thought so. A case that transfixed the world, enough drama and glamour to sell a year’s worth of newspapers, all set in a civilized locale convenient for the national press. And for a grand finale: the execution of the guilty man, a foreigner—a detested German—who had been caught with the ransom money hidden in his garage. If they had invented the tale out of whole cloth, they couldn’t have done better.
In this case they wouldn’t be so lucky. This time a backwoods coal miner had got his head bashed in, and because the culprit—or the defendant, anyhow—was a beautiful, educated girl, the newspaper editors thought that Mr. and Mrs. America would eat it up. Provided, of course, it was served to them in a palatable stew of sex, drama, and exotic local color. Henry Jernigan was just the chef to concoct this tasty dish.
He directed his gaze out the window, hoping to soothe the pain in his temples with the calming effect of the austere view: more brown, empty fields, bare hillsides of leafless trees, and beyond that the distant haze of blue mountains, indistinguishable from the lowlying clouds at the horizon.
In the stubbled ruin of a cornfield, he saw a ragged scarecrow swaying in the wind, which summoned to mind a favorite verse from the Japanese poet Bash?: “A weathered skeleton in windswept fields of memory . . .” He looked around at his fellow passengers, bundled up in drab clothes, sleeping or staring off into space. Surely he was the only person present conversant with the works of Bash?. Yes, once Henry Jernigan had possessed a soul above the cheap pratings of a tabloid newspaper, and in his cups he still could quote from memory the masters of literature from Li Po to Cervantes. But what good had it done him?
Scarecrows in dead land.
The chiaroscuro vista sweeping past him only succeeded in further quelling his spirits. Jernigan hoped he liked the countryside as much as the next man, but as a city-dweller born and bred, he preferred nature in cultivated moderation: a nice arboretum, for example. This temperate jungle spread out before him, tangled underbrush and dense forest, hedged by dark, forbidding mountains, simply reinforced his belief that he was leaving civilization. At least, he was leaving single malt scotch and the Paris-trained chefs of Manhattan’s restaurants, which amounted to the same thing.
It was the fault of Mr. John Fox, Jr., that he was on this journey in the first place—all the more reason to loathe the man’s book. Still, he would persevere, hoping that if he kept reading, the text might provide him with a few wisps of atmosphere to spice up the story he would have to write. The book, first published in 1908 and popular again now only because of the film currently being made of it, took place in the 1890s, but surely nothing had changed around here in the ensuing four decades. Besides, where else could you turn for a primer on the backwoods culture of the Southern mountains? He needed some telling details, a few quaint folk customs, some strands of irony to elevate the sordid little tale to the level of tragedy.
Details were Henry Jernigan’s specialty. Well, all of their specialties, really. Each of his colleagues-cum-rivals, all of whom were probably holed up somewhere on this interminable train, had his own forte in transforming an ordinary account of human vice and folly into an epic saga that would sell newspapers. Jernigan’s own skill lay in framing an incident in the classical perspective, so that every jilted lover was a thwarted Romeo, every murdered wife a Desdemona. He regaled his readers with his cultural observations, making allusions to historical parallels and literary counterparts, working in a telling quote to elevate the tone of even the most sordid little murder. High-brow stuff, so that the readers could tell themselves they weren’t wallowing in the squalor of poverty and misery; they were gaining a new perspective on the essential truths of classical literature.
He was lucky to work for a newspaper that could afford such literary extravagance. Some of his colleagues had to stagger along on blood and gore accounts not far removed from the True Detective pulps, and the sob sisters had to manufacture a beautiful and innocent heroine in every dung heap of a case they covered. He had heard that there were reporters who could do the job cold sober, but he wouldn’t like to try it.
His gaze returned to the infernal book on his lap, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Absolute hokum and melodrama: Harvard engineer romances pure mountain gal against the backdrop of a feud. Its author had much to answer for. Of course, except for the geographic location, the novel was not even remotely connected to the death in question, but if Fox’s book had not existed, Henry Jernigan would be back in New York or Washington, enjoying a leisurely dinner in convivial company, instead of hurtling through the Virginia outback along with the rest of the carrion squad.
Bring out your dead, he thought. The phrase was apt. It made him think, not of plague corpses on London carts, but of the influenza victims in the Philadelphia of his youth. He shuddered, and pushed away the image. He and his colleagues scavenged not on carrion, but on the hearts of the victims: the loved ones of the slain; the family of the accused; and all the peripheral little souls whose lives were besmirched by the crime of the moment.
He was so pleased with the erudition of this observation that he looked around the car for some fellow sufferer to share it with, but the only other colleague he recognized was his assigned photographer, Shade Baker, slouched down in a window seat, with his hat over his eyes. Pity. Epigrams would be wasted on him. Baker was a son of the Midwestern prairie, an artist of blood and bone, using his artistry to illuminate the bruises, the blood-stained bodies, and the pathetic artifacts of the crime scene.
Last year Shade’s photos had illustrated the lurid stories that had waxed poetic over the battered body of little Charlie Lindbergh, unearthed from that shallow grave in the Jersey woods, so heartbreakingly close to the house from which he was taken. The Lindbergh case was the last time they had all been together.
Elsewhere, Luster Swann, whose gutter press tabloid made Henry shudder, was probably chatting up the most angelic-looking girl on the train, wherever she was. Swann, a gaunt bloodhound of a man, was invariably drawn to vacant-eyed blondes who looked as if they had just wandered out of the choir loft. The irony was that there was no greater misogynist than Luster Swann, who thought all women either treacherous or wanton, or occasionally both. He seemed always to hope to find some ethereal innocent who would convince him otherwise, but he never succeeded, which was just as well, because his journalistic specialty was a judicious mixture of cynicism and righteous indignation. To Swann every female defendant was a scheming Jezebel, and every weeping victim a little tramp who deserved what ever she got.
Jernigan scanned the car one more time, but no familiar faces gazed back at him. None of the others were around, but they might turn up later on in the dining car.
Oh God, he needed a drink.
 
“BE YOU HEADED for Knoxville?”
Jernigan started out of a daze as if the book itself had spoken, but when he turned in the direction of the voice, he found that his seat-mate, the rabbity man in the rumpled brown suit, who had snored most of the way from Washington, had now awakened, bright-eyed and in a talkative mood.
Jernigan shook his head. “Knoxville? No, not as far as that.” He forced himself to respond in kind. “How about yourself, sir?”
“Oh, I’m going up home to Wise. Been to see my sister and her family up in the big city.” The little man looked at him appraisingly, taking note of Jernigan’s well-cut suit and the gold clasp on his silk rep tie. A slow grin spread across his face. “Coal company business, then? Like as not you’ll be headed up to Wise County, I reckon, to visit the mines.”
Jernigan inclined his head. “My business does take me to Wise County. Would you be a resident there yourself?”
“Born and bred,” said the man happily. “I’m not in the mines, though, no sir. My business is timber. I hope you’ve made arrangements for accommodations in the town already. Lodging should be at a premium this week.”
“In a village in the back of beyond?” Henry’s murmur conveyed polite skepticism. “Why should it be crowded, especially at this bleak time of year?”
The man blinked at him, astounded by this display of ignorance. “Not crowded?” he spluttered. “Did you not hear about the murder trial that’s about to start up there?”
Henry Jernigan was careful to set his face into a mask of polite boredom. “Why, no,” he said with as much indifference as he could muster. “A murder trial, you say? I don’t suppose it amounts to much, but if you’d care to pass the time, you may tell me something about it.”
Had he identified himself as a reporter and attempted to question this garrulous stranger about the local scandal, no doubt the man would have clammed up and refused to utter a single word on the subject, but by implying that this singular news was of no consequence to him, he had ensured that he would be regaled with every salacious detail the fellow could muster. Odd creatures, human beings, but entirely predictable, once you had learned the patterns of behavior. He contrived to look suitably indifferent to the tale.
“A man got murdered up there in Wise County back in the summer,” his seatmate declared.
Jernigan stifled a yawn. “Nobody important, I daresay?”
“Well, sir, it happened in Pound, which is barely big enough to be called a village, so everybody there is somebody, if you catch my drift. Anyhow, it wasn’t no ordinary killing, no sir.”
“Gunned down by some feuding neighbor, I suppose? Or felled in a drunken brawl?” said Jernigan. He opened his book again.
“Now that’s just where you’re wrong,” said his seatmate, eager to be the bearer of scandalous news. “You’ll scarcely credit it, but they went and arrested the fellow’s wife and daughter for the crime. They let Mrs. Morton go right away, decided not to prosecute her, but they charged the daughter with first-degree murder. Yes, sir, they did. And her the prettiest little thing you ever did see, and ladylike, to boot. Been to college and then came back and taught school up home. Last girl in the world you’d expect to do a thing like that. Last . . . girl . . . in . . . the . . . world.”
“Pretty, you say,” said Jernigan, raising his eyebrows with polite disbelief. “And by that I suppose you mean ‘passably attractive for a village maiden.’ Fine blond hair, good teeth, but perhaps she has the face of an amiable sheep, and the overstuffed body of a dray horse? Ankles like birch trees?”
“Now that’s just where you’re wrong, sir,” said the man, who felt that being the authority on this local sensation made him temporarily equal to this superior-looking gentleman. “Pretty, I said, sir, and pretty I meant. Miss Erma Morton is a slip of a girl, dark-haired with big brown eyes, more doe than dray horse. Just twenty-one years old. She has a quiet, ladylike way about her, too. She could be in the pictures, I’m telling you for a fact.”
So the accused was a beauty. Henry Jernigan relaxed a little, relieved to have the early descriptions of the accused confirmed in person by a local source. Stories about pretty girls in trouble practically wrote themselves.
“Indeed?” he said. “But why would a lovely and learned young woman such as you describe resort to the killing of her own father? The poor creature was deranged, I suppose.” He coughed discreetly and lowered his voice. “I have heard it said that venereal disease can—”
The little man was shocked. “Why, no such thing! There was no trouble of that kind, I assure you, and I’ve known her all her life.”
“Friend of the family, are you?” said Jernigan, scenting blood.
“No, I wouldn’t go as far as that, but we knew her to speak to, same as anybody would. There are no strangers thereabouts. And she was always a good girl. Now I don’t say the young lady didn’t have a mind of her own, going off and getting educated like she did, and maybe her father was apt to forget that she was a grown girl paying rent to live there. They say he wanted to lay down the law like he did when she was a little girl. Curfews and such.”
Henry Jernigan was all polite astonishment. “The refined young lady killed her father over a curfew?”
The authority shook his head sadly, obviously sorry that he had ever attempted to plow the stony field of this discussion. “Well, we don’t know that she killed him at all,” he said. “There were no witnesses. As I said, the case is just about to go to trial. It will all turn out to be some tragic misunderstanding, like as not.”
Jernigan nodded. With his luck, that would indeed turn out to be the case. Still, with backwoods justice, you never could tell what the outcome would be, guilt notwithstanding. In 1916 they had hanged a circus elephant at the railroad yards in Erwin, Tennessee, less than a hundred miles from his current destination. He had heard of the case when he interviewed a Tennessee congressman, and ever since then he had dined out on that story, dramatizing the incident for his listeners over cigars and brandy, and always ending with the solemn admonition: “So, gentlemen, if you are ever charged with murder in the great state of Tennessee, do not plead elephant. It is not a valid defense.”
 
Excerpted from The Devil Amongst The Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb.
Copyright  2010 by Sharyn McCrumb.
Published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Continues...

Excerpted from The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb Copyright © 2010 by Sharyn McCrumb. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Devil Amongst the Lawyers are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Devil Amongst the Lawyers.

About the Book

In 1935, when Erma Morton, a beautiful young woman with a teaching degree, is charged with the murder of her father in a remote Virginia mountain community, the case becomes a cause célèbre for the national press.

Eager for a case to replace the Lindbergh trial in the public’s imagination, the journalists descend on the mountain county intent on infusing their stories with quaint local color: horse-drawn buggies, rundown shacks, children in threadbare clothes. They need tales of rural poverty to give their Depression-era readers people whom they can feel superior to. The untruth of these cultural stereotypes did not deter the big-city reporters, but a local journalist, Carl Jennings, fresh out of college and covering his first major story, reports what he sees: an ordinary town and a defendant who is probably guilty.

This journey to a distant time and place summons up ghosts from the reporters’ pasts: Henry Jernigan’s sojourn in Japan that ended in tragedy, Shade Baker’s hardscrabble childhood on the prairie, and Rose Hanelon’s brittle sophistication, a shield for her hopeless love affair. While they spin their manufactured tales of squalor, Carl tries to discover the truth in the Morton trial with the help of his young cousin Nora, who has the Sight. But who will believe a local cub reporter whose stories contradict the nation’s star journalists? For the reader, the novel resonates with the present: an economic depression, a deadly flu epidemic, a world contending with the rise of political fanatics, and a media culture determined to turn news stories into soap operas for the diversion of the masses.

A stunning return to the lands, ballads, and characters upon which she made her name, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is a testament to Sharyn McCrumb’s lyrical and evocative writing.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    You must read this one!

    The Devil Amongst the Lawyers
    Sharyn McCrumb
    The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is one of Sharyn McCrumb's best books yet. According to the acknowledgments in the book, it is a fictionalized version of the 1935 murder trial of Edith Maxwell, which took place in Wise County, Virginia. I was hooked on this story from page one. You follow some of the reporters traveling to Wise by way of Abingdon to cover the trial. The descriptions of Abingdon, the Martha Washington Inn, and the Barter Theater in 1935 are very interesting. They stay overnight in Abingdon, and then head on to Wise, VA. A young lady has been accused of killing her father because of a dispute over her curfew. The story unfolds of the life of the young lady and her family, and their life in Wise.
    This story was very entertaining and thought provoking. You follow along and learn what is going on as the reporters learn. The dialogue is easy to follow, and you can keep up with the characters and what is going on with them. The big city reporters describe the scene as a "back of beyond" place, a phrase from the book. Another reporter decides to tell the truth about what he sees. He ends up getting fired from his job for reporting the truth. Between following the trial, learning some of the history of Abingdon and Wise, and having some characters with the Sight, this book was a delight. I would recommend it to anyone who likes trials, history, suspense, or other Sharyn McCrumb books.
    I was left with one question while reading the book. When Nora Bonesteel was traveling to Wise, she encountered another woman on the train. Nora says to herself, "There wasn't any point in telling the woman something that she wouldn't believe anyhow. She would find out for herself soon enough." What did the lady find out when she got to Knoxville? It is never revealed.
    The side story of Henry, one of the reporters, is very touching. I cried at a couple of places. The descriptions of what he goes through, and how he got to where he was in the book, will touch your heart. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2010

    Fascinating, But Not as Fascinating as it Could Have Been

    The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is historical fiction based on the 1935 trial of Edith Maxwell in Wise County, Virginia. What I found so interesting about this novel is that the trial is just an afterthought. The real story lies in the journalists who come to cover it, some honestly and some not so honestly.

    Erma Morton is a beautiful, young schoolteacher accused of a hideous crime...the murder of her father, Pollock. Is she guilty or innocent? To McCrumb, it hardly matters, as we do not find out until the last few pages. To the journalists covering the case, this is a goldmine trial. A young girl "pretty enough to be in the pictures", living in the "backwards part of the country in them ther hills". Whether true or not, Henry Jernigan, Rose Hanelon, Shade Baker, and especially Luther Swann, will write what their editors want to see in the newspaper. Carl Jennings, on his first major assignment and the only one to report the truth, refuses to resort to writing stereotypes. The only way he can get ahead of the others is if he uses his young cousin, Nora, who has the gift of Sight.

    As I love historical fiction, I found this novel fascinating, but not as fascinating as it could have been. As we read the story from the points of view of the major characters, the novel at times can seem hurky-jerky. It is not seamless as a Picoult novel might be. However, McCrumb should be commended for writing about a trial in the Depression-era United States that is not well-known.

    MY RATING - 4/5

    To see my rating scale and other reviews, please check out my blog:
    http://www.1776books.blogspot.com.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Based on a true media feeding frenzy, this is a timely super historical mystery

    In 1935, the country remains in the Great depression, but to schoolteacher Erma Morton the economy is the least of her worries. The Pound, Virginia police arrested her for the murder of her father; her mom was also taken in by the cops, but let go as they decide to prosecute Erma only. The national papers send reporters and photographers to cover the story while from Tennessee comes the Johnson City Sleuth teenage reporter Carl Jenkins.

    The big shot journalists make it seem as if the townsfolk were against Erma because she is pretty, charming and educated. They write their reports so it reads the way they believe the public (and Mr. Hearst who has cut a deal with the brother of the accused) would want to picture the case. Carl knows he cannot compete in their league so he sends for his twelve years old cousin Nora Bonesteel, who has the "sight", to see if she can give him the true story.

    Based on a true media feeding frenzy, this is a timely super historical mystery in which the reporting supersedes the case. Sharyn McCrumb makes a case that nothing really has changed except the medium used by the journalists who still slant and cherry pick what they report; in this trial of the beautiful attractive heroine who is persecuted by the ignorant locals. Carl lacks confidence and experience so he depends on Nora in her youngest appearance (see The Songcatcher and Ghost Riders). Readers will enjoy this early insightful Ballad.

    Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2013

    Disappointing.

    I missed my Hamlin TN friends. After I could not get into this book, i bought it on audio. Hoping to get into it on a long car trip, i still was unable tofinish it. How many more books do we have to hear about that poor elephant in?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2013

    Not Interesting Enough

    This is a very thin who-dunnit for Sharyn McCrumb. For the most part, it's just a polemic against reporters/authors that misrepresented the truth back in the day. I can't tell you how tired you'll be of all the references to Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the 1908 novel (and eventual film) that supposedly cemented in people's minds the image of a backward, clannish Appalachia. But Ms. McCrumb is complaining a century too late, and rather than just giving a picture of how things "used" to be, it feels like she's hitting anger bullet points. And hitting them over and over. Frankly, this book lacks not only a plot, but a strong protagonist. Or any protagonist, really. It relies on a series of characters, each one as weak and unappealing as the next. I wondered at times if the author even enjoyed writing this book, or if she was simply teaching her publisher a lesson about requesting another of her popular Ballad series. It certainly taught this fan a lesson. And the plot, based on the 1935 Edith Maxwell trial, is a very shaky platform on which to hang several hundred pages of griping about the unfair reporting practices of yesteryear.

    If you loved her other ballad books, do not think that this one will satisfy. This is dry as dust.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    Anonymous

    Interesting story. Light reading.

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