THE INNOCENCE OF JOAN LITTLE: A Southern Mystery by
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THE INNOCENCE OF JOAN LITTLE: A Southern Mystery

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Reston's Rashomon-like treatment of the Joan Little murder trial relies on the psychological premise that there are as many versions of ""truth"" as there are participants in a story. In this case the narrators, fourteen in all, include the sheriff of Washington, North Carolina, where the events took place, the prosecutor, a lame-brained civil rights activist, an organizer of the Joan Little Defense Committee, and a psychopathic sixteen-year-old who may have witnessed what actually happened between slain jailer Clarence Alligood and prisoner Joan Little. Reston savors the ambiguities and conflicting accounts like the novelist he is, as he peers behind the public facts of the celebrated case--Little was acquitted on grounds of defending herself against Alligood's rape attempt--turning the story upside down and inside out. Joan Little, it seems, was little more than a prostitute and common thief, scorned by the black community of her home town. Her defense attorney, a master manipulator who used the case as a springboard to national fame, readily admitted ""She's not an honest person. . . . She's a violent person""; others, the assistant prosecutor for one, saw her as blatantly guilty of 1st-degree murder and ""a psychopath on top."" Reston manages to introduce an inordinate number of kinks in the case, some of them quite extraneous, but the crucial question of who brought the ice-pick into the cell--Little or Alligood?--is never answered. Reston's point is that truth was a casualty of dogma, of media ballyhoo, as Joan Little became everybody's symbol--of women's rights, of prisoners' rights, of Southern racism, of the anti-death penalty crusade. He manages--presumably by use of a tape recorder--to capture all the voices, black and white, cynical, biased, opportunistic. The final mix is as discomfiting as prejudice and propaganda can make it.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1977
Publisher: Times Books (formerly Quadrangle/New York Times)