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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Traitors fascinate Janet Malcolm. In much discussed New Yorker articles, she has offered searing portraits of convicted murder Jeffrey MacDonald, Freudian scholar Jeffrey Masson, and the biographers of Sylvia Plath. She is one of the few contemporary journalists to delve beyond personality; her profiles instead explore the moral problems inherent in journalism, psychoanalysis and biography. Ironically, she became caught up in her own moral drama when one of her subjects — Jeffrey Masson — accused her of betrayal — saying she had misquoted him referring to himself as an "intellectual gigolo" among other things. A lengthy court case followed. Malcolm was ultimately exonerated. But, perhaps, this episode provoked her interest in the subject of her most recent work: the machinations of the legal system; the story of a woman wrongly accused.
In 1996, Sheila McGough, a woman just out of jail, sent Janet Malcolm an intriguing letter: "I was a defense lawyer who irritated some federal judges and federal prosecutors in the course of defending a client... I didn't commit any of the 14 felonies I was convicted of. The U.S. Government office in Alexandria 'framed' me."
McGough had represented a con man named Bob Bailes; a relentless schemer who sold phony insurance companies through ads he placed in The Wall Street Journal. According to the prosecutor, "Sheila became too close to Bob Bailes, and began to handle his business affairs, and as the business affairs of a con man like Bailes involve conning people, so too did the defendantbecomeinvolved in the con schemes." Specifically, McGough was accused of pocketing thousands of dollars sent to Bailes by hopeful investors.
Like a dogged private investigator, Janet Malcolm spent over a year "poking and peering" at the case. As she reviews transcripts and interviews, she convincingly establishes that McGough was, in fact, innocent. She finds proof that government witnesses lied and perjured themselves. "It seems scarcely possible that someone could go to prison for being merely irritating, but as far as I can make out, this is what happened to Sheila McGough. She is a woman of almost preternatural honesty and decency."
As Malcolm explores the details of the real-life case, the tale takes on all the elements of a Jim Thompson novel or a classic film noir. Bob Bailes is as a clever, seductive grifter, a Southern schemer, seemingly addicted to forgery and scam. McGough, a blonde, pretty woman is his polar opposite. She lacks any guile or savvy, and at 40, lives at home with her Catholic parents, Lawrence Welk records, and a Chihuahua. The patsy is a wealthy, well-bred investment broker with a fierce law-and-order streak. Malcolm is the erudite, often cranky, New Yorker, driving to abandoned buildings and strip malls, trying to get at some notion of the truth.
The book is more than a compelling whodunit; it is full of Malcolm's trademark ruminations on ethics and morality. She raises complex questions about our current legal system, and proposes that Sheila's case is proof that "the truth is a nuisance in trial work." While the high-profile cases of accused men like O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton have led to constant superficial TV commentary on guilt and innocence, Malcolm takes an unknown, ordinary case and offers a patient and profound exploration of the law.
This book will maintain Malcolm's reputation as one of the few writers able to make intellectual conflict exciting. The story of Sheila McGough is surprisingly moving, an old-fashioned do-gooder cast astray among the shrewd and the slick. And Malcolm's insight into the American legal system is provocative and disturbing; she indicts it as a savage arena where the innocent and honest are likely to get slayed.