The work of Edmund L. Pearson, the best true crime writer of all time, doesn't often garner book reviews on Amazon. With a sales rank that hovers somewhere around the 1.7 million mark, Murder at Smutty Nose is a lost masterpiece.
I noticed a while back that someone actually posted an Amazon review of that book, and the reviewer was so dead-on in her knowledge and assessment of Pearson and his contributions to crime literature that I thought the thing worth sharing with those eighteen other people (including descendants) who worship Pearson as I do. Maybe one of these days I'll convince the rest of you to sample his genius. (Photo from www.hatchetonline.com)
A Unique American Literary Figure
Reviewer: Gloria Mundi
Calling Edmund Pearson a "true-crime" writer is rather like describing Dom Perignon as a cheap bit of fizz. Like his Scottish contemporary William Roughead, Pearson was a talented writer with a dry wit and pleasantly off-kilter personality, who transcended his strange subject matter to produce remarkably entertaining, usually insightful social commentary.
Although both these authors had no pretensions to do anything other than entertain themselves and their readers (in that order, probably,) they make admirable historians.
"Murder At Smutty Nose," is a fine representative collection of Pearson's work. The title essay , which chronicles a multiple murder on a lonely island, and "The Sixth Capsule," detailing the poisoning of an unwanted secret wife, are memorable examples of how banal utter cruelty and selfishness can be.
On the other hand, "A Demnition Body," and "Number 31 Bond Street," are about as farcical as violent death can possibly be. "Number 31," in particular, with its bizarre cast of characters and a heroine prone to faking pregnancies--complete with borrowed baby--for inheritance purposes ("Don't touch my dear baby--this is the child of Harvey Burdell!") describes a still-unsolved mystery that no novelist would dare invent.
However, Pearson's treatment of Constance Kent (convicted of murdering her infant brother in 1860,) and Lizzie Borden (the author's pet obsession throughout his career,) reveal his chief failing as a crime historian: Intellectual rigidity. He was too apt to take a conventional view of criminal cases--namely, that the accused was always guilty--and he seldom kept his mind open to other solutions. (This is particularly unfortunate in the Kent case, which was far more complex and unresolved than Pearson ever acknowledged.)
This is a minor failing, however, and it should not keep anyone interested in social history--or who simply wants to read a good mystery--from giving Pearson's works a try.
Alright, that crack about the Constance Kent case is off (she surely did it, in my opinion) but otherwise my favorite author is pinned to the canvas by the above.