Smith’s letters to Buckley, which are included in “Scoundrel,” are well-written and filled with literary and cultural allusions.
Because Buckley is impressed with the quality of Smith’s writing, he introduces him to Alfred A. Knopf book editor Sophie Wilkins, with the expectation that the editor will be able to help Smith get his writings published.
Wilkins and Buckley believe in Smith’s innocence. As a result, Wilkins works intimately with Smith on what will become “Brief Against Death,” published in 1965.
She encourages him first in her professional capacity as an editor, and later in the role of a girlfriend.
In the meantime, Buckley works tirelessly, and without remuneration, on getting Smith released from prison.
In 1971, Smith gains his freedom, but by 1976 that freedom is gone.
Smith, whom psychiatrists label a sociopath, attacks Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun with a knife, nearly killing her. Smith is tried, found guilty and sent to the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, where he died in 2017.
Although Weinman never explicitly states how Smith was able to dupe Buckley and Wilkins, she does portray Smith as a master manipulator; he appealed to Buckley’s vanity as an intellectual.
Buckley found it nearly impossible to believe that a man who could write as well as Smith could have brutally murdered a 15-year-old girl.
With Wilkins, Smith played to her insecurities as a mid-40s woman in the early 1960s, alternately flattering and belittling her.
It was a pattern he’d established with all the women in his life, including his mother, his girlfriends and his three wives.
I recommend “Scoundrel” with a caveat: Do not expect an easy read.
The book is filled with primary sources, including court transcripts and newspaper clippings from the 1950s and 60s.
The book is a fascinating examination of a killer’s ability to manipulate those around him and cheat the legal system.
(Maureen Cooke has been writing, editing and teaching others to write for the past 30 years. She’s a member of the Corrales Writers’ Group.)