Edgar Smith is not one of the names that comes to mind when one thinks of storied American killers, but according to the superb crime writer and journalist Sarah Weinman, he was at one point “perhaps the most famous convict in America.” Convicted for the brutal 1957 murder of 15-year-old Vickie Zielinski in New Jersey, Smith spent years on death row claiming he was innocent. His story caught the eye of conservative millionaire William F. Buckley Jr., who befriended Smith and helped him publish his story in a bestselling book. After years of legal wrangling, Smith was released from prison and became a passionate advocate for prison reform.
But then? Smith was caught attempting to abduct a woman in California in 1976. After he stabbed and beat her, the woman managed to escape. He confessed to killing Zielinski while being tried for his second crime, and ultimately died in prison in 2017. Scoundrel is the electric story of a man who managed to fool everyone around him: his wife, his mother, the famous neoconservative who founded the National Review and even the legal system.
The most interesting detail Weinman uncovered during her research for Scoundrel is that Smith had an affair with his editor, Sophie Wilkins—or at least as much of an affair as one can have from the confines of prison. Weinman found a trove of correspondence from Smith to Wilkins, some of which are love letters and others of which are more sexually graphic. “Those long letters, exceeding twenty single-spaced pages, weren’t sent through the Trenton State prison system, lest snooping censors create problems and revoke the privileges of its increasingly famous Death House inmate,” Weinman writes. Instead, Smith gave the letters to his lawyers, who passed them along to Wilkins. Wilkins would later claim she was only using Smith’s affection to produce the best book possible, but the letters suggest a more complicated and sincere relationship between the pair.
Despite his crimes happening more than 60 years ago, Weinman paints a complete portrait of Smith in all his complexity, with an unsettling ending that left me breathless. A chilling and deeply satisfying read, Scoundrel injects life into a story nearly forgotten by time.