The press and the murderess: Sharyn McCrumb unveils new ballad novel
by Rob Neufeld
A world-weary journalist travels to Wise County, Virginia in 1935 to cover a “murder-of-the-century.” He is one of several newspeople in Sharyn McCrumb’s new novel, The Devil amongst the Lawyers
, who makes things up to sell more copies.
The story is based on a real life incident, the trial of Edith Maxwell for the murder of her father. McCrumb conjures up a part of the Appalachian past to produce her seventh “ballad novel.”
Over the last few years, McCrumb has gone three times around the track with genre-defying, NASCAR-based fiction. Her previous ballad novel, Ghost Riders
, involving the Civil War and the Shelton Laurel Massacre in Madison County, arrived seven years ago.
McCrumb’s first ballad novel, If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O
, published in 1990, drew upon the traditional song, “Little Margaret.” Her second, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
, introduced fan favorite, Nora Bonesteel, a woman with the Sight—that is, an inherited ability to glimpse the future.
Nora, as a twelve-year-old, appears in The Devil amongst the Lawyers
. Her older cousin, Carl Jennings, is covering the Erma Morton trial for the Johnson City newspaper and could use her help to get a big break.
Carl is a specimen of a character we love—the career starter who finds himself caught between two worlds. McCrumb’s characters often represent such culture-defining roles. For example, there are often some who champion Appalachian virtues, and others who negatively stereotype.
McCrumb gives the figures in her passion plays backgrounds that both explain their functions and invest them with history and soul. Carl had been a baby at the hanging of a trainer-killing circus elephant in 1916. Years later, he learned the story behind the story from an ancient reporter he met in a diner.
The reporter had been the one who’d incited the hanging spectacle in order to create drama. “The pen isn’t mightier than the sword,” he lectured Carl. “It is the sword.” Then, McCrumb writes, “the front door opened bringing in a blast of cold air, and, with a few more valedictory wheezes, the reporter passed through it and was gone.”
McCrumb’s novels are as much fun as Commedia dell’arte, the Italian style of farce that dwells on cuckoldry, except that McCrumb opens the curtains on other kinds of behavior.
Plain Jane reporter Rose Hanelon, in McCrumb’s latest, cracks hillbilly jokes and concocts a lurid story while pining for an airplane pilot. Erma Morton, the accused, privately takes care of her own values—like Mr. Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Harley Morton, her older brother, applies his city-wise ways to his revisited home town for profit or for the good of his family—you find out.
And Henry Jernigan dreams of Japan.
Jernigan, the world-weary reporter, has a story to write, too; but is haunted by his time in Japan, where he’d spent youthful years when the Influenza Epidemic had raged in the U.S. and killed his parents. McCrumb lets the Japanese culture that Jernigan knows and is wedded to infuse the rest of her plot.
While listening to the Carter Family perform in WOPI radio station in Bristol, Tennessee, Jernigan thinks about the blind Japanese musician who’d played the koto, a dulcimer-like instrument.
He senses the magical connection between Appalachia and old Japan as lands beyond time. He is keenly aware of the role that honor plays in both cultures. And he’s got a Japanese anecdote to illustrate the book’s main theme.
“There was once a horse race between a Japanese horseman and a rider from Korea,” he tells Rose. It was a two horse race, and the Korean won. A Japanese newspaper ran the headline, “Japanese Horse Comes in Second…Korean Horse Finishes Next to Last.”
The Devil amongst the Lawyers: A Ballad Novel by Sharyn McCrumb (St. Martin’s: Thomas Dunne Books hardcover, 2010, 334 pages, $24.99)
Sharyn McCrumb presents her new novel, “The Devil amongst the Lawyers,” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood Street Asheville, 7 p.m., Sat, July 10 (254-6734); at Blue Ridge Books, 152 South Main St., Waynesville, 11 to 1 p.m., Sun., July 11 (456-6000); and at City Lights Books, 3 East Jackson St., Sylva, 7 p.m., Tues., July 13 (586-9499).