A true-crime book focuses on the murder of a small-town physician’s wife.
Call it Arkansas noir. In September 1974, Fern Rodgers, the estranged wife of a small-town, septuagenarian doctor, was found shot to death in her Searcy, Arkansas, home. After a few weeks, law enforcement cracked the case, arresting an unlikely trio of suspects—the physician, Porter Rodgers; his 21-year-old mistress, Peggy Hale; and Berry Kimbrell, a friend of Hale’s whom the doctor agreed to pay $6,000 for killing Fern. Nall and Allen capably deliver this tale of greed, sex, and betrayal. The book’s most compelling character is Porter, who, after building a successful practice in Searcy, bought the local hospital and renamed it for himself. But “there were rumors around town that Doc Rodgers had an eye for the ladies,” and his marriage to Fern crumbled amid mounting debts and his gambling habit. Often, Porter “would leave his office at 5:00 p.m., would fly from Little Rock to Las Vegas, and then would be back at work by 9:00 a.m. the following morning,” police reported. By 1974, he had moved into a Searcy motel and become infatuated with Hale, whom he met when she was working as a waitress and hired as his secretary. “The only reason I can explain Fern’s killing was because I was hungry for Peggy Hale,” he told police in his confession. The authors deftly cover the entire arc of the case through the trial of Porter, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 1975, quoting extensively from police reports and trial transcripts. But Nall and Allen fail to supplement the documentary record with vivid details from secondary interviews, missing opportunities to provide context, color, and nuance that might have helped their book stand out in the true-crime crowd. Both the prosecution and defense in Porter’s trial, for example, referred to “social position” being a motivation for Hale, but the authors never explore class or social structures in Searcy or portray the physician’s paramour as anything more than a low-rent femme fatale. Nall and Allen present the story in such a bland, one-dimensional way that it may only appeal to the most fanatical of true-crime aficionados.
An intriguing but dry homicide account.