Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb

Title: The Devil Amongst the Lawyers
Author: Sharyn McCrumb
ISBN: 9780312558161, Thomas Dunne Books, 2010
Genre: Historical Mystery, #8 Ballad series
Rating: A
Source: Amazon Vine

First Line: He had been there that day, all right.

Although I am a firm believer in the author's right to publish what they wish, I do want to be on record as saying that seven years is entirely too long to wait for a new Ballad novel. McCrumb's lyrical novels are love stories about the people and the places of Appalachia, and I have been enlightened and entertained with each one.

This eighth Ballad novel is based upon the 1935 trial of a young schoolteacher accused of murdering her father. The trial became a sensation, and newspapers all over the country latched onto it to boost sales.

As The Devil Amongst the Lawyers begins, the murder of crows is already winging its way to a small county in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The chief crows in this case are newspaper reporters Henry Jernigan, Rose Hanelon, Luster Swann, and photographer Shade Baker. None of them have been to Appalachia before, but (with the logical exception of Shade) all of them have finished writing their first articles to be sent back to their respective newspapers. You see, you don't have to be in a place to know what it's like.

On a separate train is a young reporter from Johnson City, Tennessee: Carl Jennings. Jennings proceeds to investigate, to talk to people, and to send back truthful reports to his newspaper. As the days progress, Jennings is in hot water. His truthful reports have no resemblance whatsoever to the articles sent in by the New York City journalists, and his bosses wonder if he's really on location. In desperation, he asks the parents of his thirteen-year-old cousin, Nora Bonesteel, if Nora can come to help their cousin who's busy running a boarding house in town. Jennings is hoping that Nora's gift of the Sight will give him the edge in the journalistic competition.

If you've read previous Ballad novels and open this book with a set of preconceived expectations, you may very well be disappointed. Although it is wonderful to see Nora Bonesteel as a teenager, she has very little to do with the action. The mystery itself, even though it is interesting, doesn't have much meat on its bones.

The major impetus of this book is its cautionary tale about journalism and its power to distort and mislead. (Not that anything like this would ever happen today. Heavens, no!) All the New York-based characters of the Fourth Estate did not go to their destination with open minds. They all had preconceived ideas of what Appalachia was really like, and even though they could see they were wrong upon arrival, they all knew the truth would not sell papers. As Rose Hanelon frequently said by way of excusing her and her companions' shoddy journalism, it really didn't matter what they said because two days later all the papers would be at the bottoms of bird cages.

Few writers have McCrumb's sheer talent with language and dialogue to immerse readers into a particular place and time. Throughout this book, I felt as though I were walking the streets of a small town in the Appalachia of 1935. I was listening to the condescending voices of the New York City reporters, and watching the guarded, distrustful looks of the townspeople.

As the trial gains notoriety , it becomes less and less a matter of a young woman's innocence or guilt, and more and more a matter of what everyone else can gain at her expense. It is a strong, compelling tale with fascinating characters and a wonderful sense of place. It's not the typical Ballad novel that McCrumb's fans have come to love and expect, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying every page.


  1. I was surprised to see a new book by this author. It had been so long, I think I assumed she was finished writing. I've read a couple of her books, but this was another series that I just did not keep up with. So many series that I want to read. Thanks for the thoughts and I'll keep it in mind. It sounds interesting for sure and I loved the setting of some of the previous books.

  2. I'm reading this book right now and as a former journalist, the depiction of the NY reporters was all too spot on about some reporters, especially city reporters. When I covered a rather sensational murder trial in our rural county that attracted national attention, I saw the same type of prejudgement and we locals were highly offended.

  3. It's been a long time since I've read any of McCrumb's work, but I agree with you - she sure is talented. This one sounds marvelous!

  4. As a rule, I think your reviews are wicked. You have cracking good taste!

    But there is something about this novel that makes me ponder.

    Part of me wants to grab it immediately and part of me wants to toss it in the bin.

    One to think about I reckon...

    Bloody good review though!

  5. I don't typically read books in series, but this sounds intriguing. Do you think it does well as a stand-alone, or should I look for her first Ballad book?

  6. I have loved Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad novels. I had this one pre-ordered. It is on the way.

  7. Kay-- She hasn't stopped writing, she was busy writing her NASCAR books. I have no interest in NASCAR, so it was as if she'd fallen off the face of the earth!

    Barbara-- Yes, there are far too many similarities between 1935 and 2010, I'm afraid. History will continue to repeat itself because we humans seem too stupid to learn from our mistakes.

    Kathy-- It is very good. I hope you give it a try.

    Kit-- Thank you so much for those kind words! I think the reason why you want to throw the book in the bin is because it's got a lot to say about the press, and I don't know of anyone who really loves reporters and cameramen!

    Valerie-- It does very well as a standalone. If it weren't for the appearance of Nora Bonesteel, you really wouldn't be able to say it's a Ballad novel (other than the setting).

    Joe-- I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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