How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free
A Recommended Read from: The Los Angeles Times * Town and Country * The Seattle Times * Publishers Weekly * Lit Hub * Crime Reads * Alma
From the author of The Real Lolita and editor of Unspeakable Acts, the astonishing story of a murderer who conned the people around him—including conservative thinker William F. Buckley—into helping set him free
In the 1960s, Edgar Smith, in prison and sentenced to death for the murder of teenager Victoria Zielinski, struck up a correspondence with William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. Buckley, who refused to believe that a man who supported the neoconservative movement could have committed such a heinous crime, began to advocate not only for Smith’s life to be spared but also for his sentence to be overturned.
So begins a bizarre and tragic tale of mid-century America. Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel leads us through the twists of fate and fortune that brought Smith to freedom, book deals, fame, and eventually to attempting murder again. In Smith, Weinman has uncovered a psychopath who slipped his way into public acclaim and acceptance before crashing down to earth once again.
From the people Smith deceived—Buckley, the book editor who published his work, friends from back home, and the women who loved him—to Americans who were willing to buy into his lies, Weinman explores who in our world is accorded innocence, and how the public becomes complicit in the stories we tell one another.
Scoundrel shows, with clear eyes and sympathy for all those who entered Smith’s orbit, how and why he was able to manipulate, obfuscate, and make a mockery of both well-meaning people and the American criminal justice system. It tells a forgotten part of American history at the nexus of justice, prison reform, and civil rights, and exposes how one man’s ill-conceived plan to set another man free came at the great expense of Edgar Smith’s victims.
In this mesmerizing account, Weinman (The Real Lolita) does a masterly job resurrecting a stranger-than-fiction chapter in American criminal justice. In 1957, unemployed veteran Edgar Smith was arrested for bludgeoning 15-year-old Victoria Zielinski to death in Mahwah, N.J. Smith, who testified in his own defense at his trial, was sentenced to death. In 1962, after conservative intellectual William F. Buckley learned Smith was an admirer of Buckley's magazine, National Review, Buckley began corresponding with Smith, leading to an unlikely friendship and financial support for legal efforts to spare Smith's life. Smith, who published both a book about his case and a mystery novel from behind bars, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder during a retrial, and in 1971 he was released for time served. In 1976, Smith stabbed a woman nearly to death in California. (During his testimony at the subsequent trial, he admitted to killing Zielinski.) Weinman's dogged research, which included correspondence with Smith, who died in prison in 2017, and a study of Buckley's papers, enable her to craft a deeply unsettling narrative about how a clever killer manipulated the justice system to his benefit. This instant classic raises disturbing questions about gullibility even on the part of the very bright. Agent: David Patterson, Stuart Krichevsky Literary.