Plus hall-of-famers Malcolm and Holt
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As you’ve no doubt heard, Janet Malcolm died last week at the age of 86, and unsurprisingly, The Journalist and the Murderer made the lede in her obituary. My frustration with Malcolm as an object of genre reverence is well-documented, but not always expressed clearly; chief obit author Katharine Q. Seelye calmly lays out the issues with making Malcolm an arbiter of reporting ethics:
But what galled some journalists about [THatM] the most, The Times reported in 1989, “was her failure, and that of her magazine, to disclose that Miss Malcolm had been accused of the same kind of behavior, in a lawsuit filed against her by the subject of an earlier New Yorker article.”
That earlier article, a 1983 profile of the flamboyant psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, led to a libel suit against Ms. Malcolm that hung over her during a decade of litigation and clouded her reputation even longer.
The legal allegations were different: The MacDonald suit accused Mr. McGinniss of fraud and breach of contract; the Masson suit accused Ms. Malcolm of libel. But both suits raised serious questions about journalistic ethics — Dr. MacDonald’s about the nature of writers’ obligations to their sources, and Mr. Masson’s about what constitutes quotations and what license, if any, reporters may take with them.
The journalistic community generally judged Ms. Malcolm harshly, mostly for the finding in the Masson case that she had cobbled together 50 or 60 separate conversations with the loquacious Mr. Masson and made them appear as if he had spoken them in a single lunchtime monologue.
Malcolm was an outstanding prose stylist. She also forced creators and consumers of true crime to consider our roles in the processes of investigation, truth-seeking, systems of “justice,” et al., and on those bases I have no problem with her ascending to the genre’s hall of fame, whatever that looks like.
But she also composited quotes and got busted. Life’s messy like that. — SDB
For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking back at the 1988 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime. These titles, published in 1987, are an interesting lot: a classic, a couple of lesser-known murder tales, an extremely relevant-for-2021 read on far-right extremism, and a heist saga. Let’s see how they hold up as summertime reading after 34 years!
Next up is Engaged to Murder: The Inside Story of the Mainline Murders by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel. This is actually the second book published in 1987 about the murder of suburban Philadelphia teacher Susan Reinert and the disappearance of her two children (Karen and Michael) in June 1979. True-crime legend Joseph Wambaugh wrote the other title, Echoes in the Darkness. So I find it strange that I had never heard of this case, which is a really bizarre and sordid tale.
The discovery of Susan Reinert’s battered and tortured body inside the trunk of her car in a motel parking lot outside Harrisburg, PA (and with no sign of her children) is about as grim and disturbing as it gets. Neighbors last saw her leaving her house during a thunderstorm on a summer evening with her two kids. At the time, Susan was involved with a fellow suburban-high-school English teacher named William Bradfield — a charismatic, gaslighting, wannabe lothario who dated multiple colleagues (and students) at the school. As they were engaged to be married that summer (at least as Susan told friends), she made him the beneficiary of her life-insurance policy and gave him access to $25,000 she inherited after the passing of her mother.
When police talked to Bradfield, he claimed he was never engaged to Susan. He felt pity for her and tried to help her. See, she was psychologically fragile and wanted him around all the time, but they were never involved. If that makes you say “Hmmm,” prepare yourself, because things just get weirder. For months, Bradfield had been telling his clique of fellow English teachers that the former principal of their school, Jay Smith, was going to kill Susan. In the same way that Bradfield manipulated Susan and multiple other women in his life, he was able to influence this group of colleagues not to call the police and not to tell anyone of the danger he claimed Smith posed. In fact, he used this group as his alibi the weekend of Susan’s murder, having them accompany him on a trip to the New Jersey coast.
Smith, a sexual sadist with a secret criminal life, lost his position as principal when police tied him to a string of thefts (in addition to drugs and weapons violations). Physical evidence emerged linking Smith to the Susan’s murder, but the motive remained murky. Was this some sort of thrill kill on Smith’s part (there is evidence to suggest he may have killed before — his daughter and son-in-law disappeared under suspicious circumstances)? Did Bradfield expect that if he presented the opportunity to kill Susan to Smith, he would bite? Bradfield’s motive — getting his hands on Susan’s insurance and inheritance money — seems clear, but I struggled a bit to find within Schwartz-Nobel’s account how all the pieces may have fit together. Sadly, the biggest mystery — what happened to Susan’s kids — remains unsolved decades later.
Part of the problem is that Engaged to Murder is interspersed with testimonials from Bradfield and Smith that seem worthless (guess what — people lie to make themselves look better!). The book is too reliant on direct court transcripts from the eventual trials: Smith for the murder of Susan and her two children, and Bradfield for conspiracy to commit murder (in a separate trial, a jury found him guilty of financial crimes related to pilfering Susan’s inheritance). There are interesting details dropped in by the writer that I wanted to learn more about but didn’t really go anywhere, including Bradfield’s use of an Ezra Pound translation to devise a secret code to communicate with his girlfriend when he was in prison. Cryptology and a treasonous poet — give me that content, please! — Susan Howard
I didn’t realize Bugsy Siegel had gotten murdered on the summer solstice. I doubt that held any significance for the Luciano henchmen who killed Siegel, and I don’t know why I assumed it had occurred on a date less…hormonally fraught, I guess? Maybe because Bugsy came out during the winter-break awards-release period in 1991, which is when I would have seen it/pathetic-fallacied whatever weather system I was in onto the film. Who knows. I remember almost nothing about the film except the framing of that fatal shot, actually. That, and the absolute angry-hornet barrage of publicity that attended the love affair between the two leads, from which there was no respite for at least a year before the movie came out.
It’s one I’ve thought about revisiting, to see how it runs outside of all of that 170-Vanity-Fair-covers nonsense; director Barry Levinson’s work isn’t for everyone, but I’ve traditionally enjoyed it (and, in the case of Diner, revered it). Anyone re-/watched Bugsy lately, and/or have alternative reading on him and his life? — SDB
And did you know that a paid subscription gets you extra content? It does! It also lets us compensate Susan and others for their contributions (and buy them out-of-print gems — or trash! — for review). And we’d greatly appreciate your contribution, too.
You can skip the I’ll Be Gone In The Dark follow-up special that drops today. It’s not even an hour long, and it’s not bad or anything, so if you do watch it, it’s not like you’ll be furious with yourself — but, like so much of the material based on Michelle McNamara’s research, something outstanding seems just out of reach. From my review for Primetimer:
The trouble is, this new episode doesn't seem sure of what it is: an update on the case and sentencing, or a backdoor pilot of sorts to a second season — one that centers on the 1980s Oak Park, IL case that first attracted McNamara to unresolved true-crime stories. So instead it splits the difference, and the end result doesn't cover either particularly well.
… Chyrons at the end of the special imply that the production may have attempted to frame out a second season, but wound up stymied by Oak Park PD's refusal to share documents. It's not a bad concept; using McNamara's research into that case as a jumping-off point, and perhaps also using the co-authors who helped finish McNamara's book posthumously, I'll Be Gone could enter a new phase of its own... and, not for nothing, leave behind some of the less successful aspects of the original HBO property.
The follow-up does have a couple of notable/chilling moments, but if your watch-list is chockablock already, you can cross this one off. — SDB
Lester Holt is headed to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Broadcasting Hall of Fame. Holt will accept the award in October at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. Just a few of his accomplishments, from the NAB press release:
Named as the “most-trusted television news personality in America” by a recent The Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll, Holt was honored with the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism in March 2021. In 2019, he received the prestigious Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism and was honored with Quinnipiac University’s Fred Friendly First Amendment Award in 2017. He has been recognized with multiple Emmy Awards and received a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2000 for his work on CBS News' broadcast 48 Hours: No Place Like Home.
On one hand, it seems like the NAB should have nestled these laurels under Holt’s dupa years ago. On the other hand, looking at the list of past awardees, it seems like maybe the honor is based on relative volume?
Whatever the case, good for Holtsy; the public’s trust in him has to stem at least in part from the sense that, whatever story he’s detailed to researching or voicing over, he’s genuinely curious and invested in it — and never thinks he’s too good for the true-crime genre. — SDB
This week on Best Evidence: New podcasts, gangs of Dallas, and Epstein’s Shadow.