In response to:

Peddling Darkness from the March 9, 2023 issue

To the Editors:

I read John J. Lennon’s review of Sarah Weinman’s book Scoundrel [“Peddling Darkness,” NYR, March 9, 2023] with great interest, being the son of one of the principals in the story, the editor Sophie Wilkins. He states, at one point, that he suspects that I must now regret having turned over to the author the letters from Edgar Smith to my mother. I certainly cooperated with Sarah Weinman, thinking that it was a story that deserved to be told and feeling that there was no way I could stop it, but I did not give Sarah any letters. I had given all my mother’s letters to Butler Library at Columbia University in 2003 after her death; she corresponded with hundreds of people in the literary world and her letters were a treasure trove. I did not once think about the folder with Smith’s letters. Had I looked at them, I almost certainly would have removed them as an unnecessary embarrassment to my mother’s memory. She deserves to be remembered for her translations and her editorial gifts, not for the folly of the campaign, led by William F. Buckley, on Smith’s behalf.

It is reasonable to ask: Does this old story have any interest today, apart from its improbability and shock value? I agree with Lennon that the book is not a serious examination of the problems of the American criminal justice system, despite the author’s hint that it will be. Nor does it aid our understanding of male psychopathic violence toward women, which Weinman implies was her chief motivation. That is a hugely important topic, but the Smith case provides little illumination.

I feel that the tale’s interest lies in the interactions of the three principals, who were so different in personality and background, and I suggest that two elements were central to their cooperation. The first was their shared intelligence and verbal facility, which was certainly a strong bond between Buckley and my mother, who remained lifelong friends. The second was the very fact of their differences: it was the equivalent of three exotic animals, each looking at the other two and thinking, Wow! I did not know there were such interesting creatures yet so easy to talk to! I would have been happier with the book had it been less salacious and explored those psychological dynamics more.

Adam S. Wilkins
Berlin, Germany

To the Editors:

Lennon’s essay caught my attention as I am a surviving family member of a murder. Our mother was raped and murdered over fifty years ago when my three sisters and I were teenagers. The crime has remained unsolved. Now, with new technology, it may be solvable. Hair from the murder kit is currently being analyzed. (I’m told it costs $30,000 and takes up to six months.) If the murderer in our case is alive and at large, what has he done with his life? Is he capable of Lennon’s level of insight? If so, should I care? Lennon didn’t mention survivors.

Those who profit from peddling darkness should be ashamed of themselves. Yet within the stories that include murder we might find ideas that broaden our perspectives and apply to everyone. For instance, how can Lennon be both a killer and a moral person, as he obviously is? Perhaps he will describe his journey in his forthcoming book. I hope he will acknowledge his victim’s family. Does he know and understand the kind of prison he put them in?

My life changed when I joined the organization Journey of Hope—from Violence to Healing. After twenty-five years I learned to talk about what happened. Murder is surprisingly intimate. I learned how to share and how not to share. One of my speaking partners was a woman whose son was on death row. It was easy to become friends because we had so much in common. I invited my sisters to join the Journey and they did. We met Sister Helen Prejean and made her an honorary Klassen sister.

In my opinion, offenders need victims and vice versa. We’re in this together.

Ruth Klassen Andrews
Cassopolis, Michigan

To the Editors:

It takes a remarkable chutzpah to review a book about a man who raped and murdered a fifteen-year-old, sexually assaulted a ten-year-old, and upon leaving prison went on to attempt to murder another woman, and conclude that the problem is that the man wasn’t given a fair shake by the author. In four thousand words John J. Lennon devotes all of a paragraph to considering the impact on victims. In contrast, section upon section is devoted to the feelings of Smith, and blaming Weinman for not “hearing his own account.” Lennon concludes that the depiction of “a talented and damaged” man as a sociopath in the book is bad because it might cause people to think harshly of murderers such as himself. He speculates that the book will cause people to think that “the real injustice was that Smith wasn’t executed.” Some readers may think that; others will come to the reasonable conclusion that Smith not only deserved life in prison, but that it significantly reduced the harm and suffering he could cause to others.


There have been three prominent murderers who were released after high-profile interventions by the well-meaning literati, whether conservative or liberal. Jack Henry Abbott went on to murder a man six weeks after being released, Edgar Smith abducted and attempted to kill a woman, Jack Unterweger went on to kill nine women. (Other cases have merely involved perpetrators lying about their crimes, such as Jimmy Lerner, author of You Got Nothing Coming, who depicted the skinny, 5’4″ man he killed in a drug-induced rage as a hulking giant of 6’4″ who threatened his life.) While murderers as a whole have a lower recidivism rate—at a mere 41 percent, according to one study from 2002—than released prisoners in general, thanks at least in part to being much older than other prisoners upon the end of their long sentences, literary murderers appear to be an uncommonly dangerous lot.

Understandably from his perspective, Lennon is upset by the idea that this story is being told at all, because of the danger it poses to people trusting the good faith of other murderers. But perhaps—just perhaps—the stories of those murdered and assaulted also deserve to be told?

James Palmer
Deputy Editor Foreign Policy
Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

I appreciated John J. Lennon’s essay. Lennon’s insight, as an incarcerated individual, into criminal justice matters and the prison system is valuable and necessary. He also shares my own long-standing concerns about the true crime genre, that it too often veers into exploitation and prioritizes entertainment over the treatment of systemic issues.

Which is why I was puzzled at his characterization of Scoundrel as “traditional true crime that exploits true innocence” and his conclusion that it “will make people rethink the subset of true crime stories…that center on claims of wrongful convictions.” Lennon places a heavy burden on the shoulders of Edgar Smith, an anomalous figure whose supposed literary talent garnered attention and advocacy from famous friends like William F. Buckley, and whose persuasive manipulations caused significant harm to the women and girls in his orbit, above all Victoria Zielinski, the fifteen-year-old girl Smith murdered in 1957, and Lisa Ozbun, the woman he nearly murdered in 1976.

Lennon expresses overt dismay that Scoundrel did not properly consider Edgar Smith’s humanity, especially during his long incarceration in the last decades of his life. But Lennon does not take into account the many instances in which Smith’s humanity was prioritized, championed, and celebrated, and that the root of his inevitable (and tragic) recidivism was his rage toward and hatred of women, never adequately dealt with both inside and outside of prison. Smith’s humanity, in all its ugly glory, was accurately depicted.

The criminal justice system has unquestionably tilted toward punishment and retribution, and must be ameliorated to shift the balance toward rehabilitation and reintegration into society. A book of narrative nonfiction, one most concerned with the machinations of belief, a pattern of violence against women and girls, and whose voices get to matter most, cannot, and should not, solve these problems.

Sarah Weinman
New York City

John J. Lennon replies:

When the Edgar Smith saga ended in 1976 and he went away for good, Sarah Weinman and I weren’t yet born. Fast forward to today. We’re both writers in this era of mass incarceration, me from the inside and her from the outside. In her letter, Weinman is right when she writes about my reality—“The criminal justice system has unquestionably tilted toward punishment and retribution”—and she’s also right that her book “cannot, and should not, solve these problems.”

What she fails to acknowledge is that the book compounds those problems. It seems to me like Weinman wrote Scoundrel because it was a good story, entertaining. And that’s fine. But it makes the concern for our punishing criminal justice system sound disingenuous.

If Weinman is going to keep positioning herself as the moral umpire of true crime, voicing her concerns about the injustices in our legal system, then maybe she should write about an offender who doesn’t disgust her. And while I’m constantly reckoning with what I did, maybe I myself should write about a victim’s story and try to immerse myself in their pain. To be fair, Weinman does this well.