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BOOK REVIEW

A killer with fashionable friends

How a convicted murderer charmed Buckley and others.

Edgar Smith (right) on a television show with columnist William F. Buckley Jr. in New York in 1971.John Lent

When Edgar Smith was locked up on death row in New Jersey in 1962, he began an unlikely correspondence with a writer and editor curious about his case. Surprisingly, the two developed a genuine epistolary friendship. Even more surprising is that the man was William F. Buckley, the charming, handsome conservative who would go on to become such a significant cultural force.

As the long but helpful subtitle of Sarah Weinman’s new book “Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free” explains, Smith was eventually released. Her book is a riveting chronicle of his years behind bars and after, but if you think he was innocent, think again. “This book is, in effect, the story of wrongful conviction in reverse,” Weinman writes.

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In 1957, Smith, then 23, murdered 15-year-old Vickie Zielinski in a brutal attack and admitted as much to police. Within weeks, he was convicted and sentenced to death and moved into a unit called the Death House. For the next 14 years as he undertook appeals and published a book, Smith changed his story to claim he was innocent. Weinman, who lays out the details with a prosecutor’s care, convincingly demonstrates Smith was the killer.

What’s more, in a quick overview that opens the book, Weinman shows that he was a lifelong predator. He married young, murdered Zielinski, got caught, went to prison, wrote letters, wrote books, got out, enjoyed the national spotlight, alienated his friends, married another young woman, fell into a slump and then stabbed a woman who barely escaped with her life. He went back to prison and died there. As a writer, she’s more interested in the lives of the victims than Smith’s psychology. As readers, we enter this story with the full knowledge that this is a bad guy who will lash out against women with extreme violence; his allies wanted to believe otherwise.

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Smith’s case wouldn’t have gotten the attention or opportunities he did without Buckley’s efforts. Buckley helped with finances and attorneys and wrote that Smith was innocent in his own National Review and Esquire magazine. Once he was freed, Smith appeared on Buckley’s television show “Firing Line,” rode with him in limousines, and went to parties at his Manhattan apartment.

But another, less famous person shared equally in the development of Smith from murderer to a writer who deserved to be free, and that was Knopf editor Sophie Wilkins. Wilkins did the standard work of an editor, faithfully encouraging Smith as a writer, supporting him through emotional crises and creative failures, and championing him to Knopf. But she also went much, much further — she fell in love with him.

It’s hard to imagine anyone grasping the importance of Wilkins’s role as well as Weinman does. She’s marked a territory of the intersection of true crime and literary fiction — her last book, “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World,” was a bestseller. A former publishing reporter, Weinman captures the behind-the-scenes machinations of publishing Smith’s book, but she was also curious to plunge into Wilkins’s archive.

Flirtatious letters turned into a torrid secret exchange, an affair not consummated only because Smith was behind bars. The relationship between Wilkins and Smith is the surprising secret heart of this book, showing how a sensitive, intelligent person might fall for a con-man. It’s a mirror for all the others who believed his claims of innocence — the people who bought Smith’s books, his wives, his mother, his friends, and defenders.

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Weinman is able to tell the story in vivid detail because of letters and their permanence. In what today might be e-mails or phone calls or DMs or text exchanges, Smith wrote to Wilkins and Buckley with immediacy and candor, sometimes several times in the same week. Many of these letters are excerpted to lay out the story as it moves forward in granular detail. Once Smith was released from prison in 1971, that intimacy dried up —Smith was much less dedicated correspondent when he could encounter the world as a free man.

In the 1960s and ‘70s when Smith became a cause celebre, there was a spate of literary figures who connected with men behind bars in order to understand them and their worlds. Truman Capote started it all with his profile of two murderers in 1966′s “In Cold Blood”; then came Norman Mailer’s championing of Jack Henry Abbott, who was released and murdered a waiter just as his prison memoir “In the Belly of the Beast” was published in 1977. Mailer, again, published “The Executioner’s Song” about death row inmate Gary Gilmore in 1979. All of this was connected to cultural conversations around crime and punishment and the abolition of the death penalty. That Buckley wound up on the same side as these liberal writers might be why this story is less well known.

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But it all points to a bigger story, about why these white male writers all gravitated to the stories of white male inmates who were actually guilty. Obviously there were, and are, many more people of color waiting behind bars who have been falsely imprisoned and are innocent. Why didn’t their stories catch the attention of someone like Buckley or Wilkins? And as true crime remains such a compelling storytelling mode, what stories are capturing the public’s attention today, and which are waiting in the wings?

Weinman may not have all the answers, but she shows how it can happen.

SCOUNDREL: How A Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free

By Sarah Weinman

Ecco, 464 pages, $28.99

Carolyn Kellogg is formerly books editor of the Los Angeles Times.