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The Crime of Sheila McGough Paperback – February 8, 2000
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To prove her point, Malcolm has chosen one particular prosecution--or, as the facts seem to indicate, persecution. In 1986 a Virginia attorney named Sheila McGough took on the case of a con artist named Bob Bailes. First she defended this charming chiseler against a charge of bank fraud, and lost; then, two years later, she went to bat for him when he was indicted for a bizarre, insurance-related bunco game. Again she lost, and Bailes--whose tale-spinning amounted to a kind of artistry--remained in the slammer. At this point, most advocates would have moved on. Not McGough: "After her client went to prison, she continued defending him as if nothing had happened.... She remained at his side and fought for him as if he were Alfred Dreyfus, instead of the small-time con man, with an unfortunate medical history and an interesting imagination, that he was." Nothing, it turns out, clogs the machinery of the judicial system more thoroughly than an honest--okay, pathologically honest--attorney.
As McGough continued to fight for her client, she aroused the wrath, and eventually the suspicion, of the court. Surely this nutty crusade must have some hidden agenda. Malcolm makes a strong argument for her subject's innocence: "Veracity was her defining characteristic, like the color of an orange. Her behavior may have been odd, deviant, maddening, but her devotion to the truth--almost like a disease in its helpless literalness--was an inspiriting given." The court, however, thought otherwise. In 1990 McGough was found guilty of 14 counts of felony (most of which made her an accessory to Bailes's depredations) and sentenced to 3 years in prison. Only after her release in 1996 did she enlist the author on her behalf. Unlike previous objects of Malcolm's scrutiny, McGough made little effort to finesse the narrative. All the more remarkable, then, that the most sublime cross-examiner in American letters found her innocent.
The Crime of Sheila McGough is, needless to say, a stinging critique of the legal system. "Without the thinner of common sense," the author insists, "the law is a toxic substance." (Malcolm, who's gotten a liberal serving of legal toxins during the 1980s and 1990s, is surely speaking from experience.) Yet her book is an equally brilliant brief on human behavior (and misbehavior). And as she plunges deeper into the legal labyrinth, her quest for the truth and nothing but the truth leads her to some superb insights about that other form of imaginative advocacy--writing. "The truth," she offers, "does not make a good story; that's why we have art." But in The Crime of Sheila McGough, Malcolm has it both ways. Deliciously witty and almost supernaturally aware, her book is a true crime story in every sense of the phrase. --James Marcus --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top Customer Reviews
A much better Janet Malcolm book is "The Poet and the Murderer." I highly recommend this story about a well-meaning museum curator who bids on a newly discovered Emily Dickinson poem only to realize later that it is probably a forgery by the famous ex-Mormon forger Mark Hofmann.
But Malcolm's book about a guileless, professionally tone-deaf lawyer who goes to extraordinary lengths to appeal the conviction of her client, an affable scamster named Bailes, is a waste of the author's talent.
The book is brief enough to defeat prematurely tossing it aside in exasperation. But it better could have been a well-crafted essay on the tawdry McGough episode as an instance of ironies and paradoxes found in the law.
Instead we get Malcolm recounting her role as a tireless gumshoe, visiting the players on both sides of the McGough case, turning up nothing sinister or dramatic enough to change the verdict that sent McGough to prison for three years for helping client in one of his scams.
Was McGough railroaded? An earlier posting suggested the subject suckered Malcolm in the same way McGough was hoodwinked by the client. It's hard to disagree with that. I think the author blew a lot of time on this and added little to our understanding of the law.
A far better book about the law's lack of clarity, an absolutely riveting one by a then unknown writer who took an enormous risk for a distant and uncertain payoff, is A CIVIL ACTION, by Jonathan Harr.
In brief, Malcolm attempts to unravel the events leading to the fraud conviction of her "heroine", McGough, a former attorney. What is painfully apparent to the reader is that Malcolm's adovcacy of McGough is as blind and as ill-considered as that of McGough for her client.
At the very least, based on what Malcolm tells us, Sheila McGough was a TERRIBLE lawyer. It seems likely that she was emotionally or mentally disabled in some way -- one insightful reviewer below guesses autism, and that sounds right. However, it also seems likely that she committed crimes but Malcolm steadfastly disregards all the evidence that points that way, calling each of Sheila's misdeeds bad "judgment". Moreover, Malcolm reveals a lower level of understanding of the legal process than any average court TV reporter - claiming at one point that it is normal to notarize documents that the notary has not witnessed the signing of - please, folks, don't try this one at home.
Malcolm also reads way too much into transcripts, brief interviews, etc. -- great novelization skills, but for non-fiction, way too heavy handed.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I never thought I'd say this, but Janet Malcolm has written a very mediocre book. It's hard to see why she thought such small potatoes would be a worthy subject for her talents. Read morePublished 9 months ago by P. Stern
Iinteresting true story of how the criminal justice system can destroy a well-meaning lawyer. Maybe a little naive in accepting the lawyer's version of the facts, but a good read.Published 10 months ago by raffles
This brief account of true events is unlikely read without puzzling over what seems an unusual set of characters and their intersection. Read morePublished on March 4, 2012 by jtk
I love Janet Malcolm's writing. But I found this book frustrating and tedious, although it's barely 160 pages. Read morePublished on September 13, 2008 by Paprikash
There was a good book in here somewhere, but I found the author's point of view toward the main charachter frustrating. Read morePublished on March 8, 2005 by George
Having been interviewed by Ms Malcomb for this book, given that I was personally responsible for the plight of her protagonist, I can say with certainty that she has really missed... Read morePublished on December 27, 2001 by K. MacDonald
This is the first full-length book by Janet Malcolm that I read, and it lead to my finishing almost all her books. Read morePublished on October 11, 2000 by Chen Yao
Janet Malcolm's portrayal of Sheila McGough is of conscientiousness gone awry; the over-zealous lawyer, hired by a con artist names Bob Bailes, guards her client's rights all the... Read morePublished on September 13, 2000 by Melissa Hardie