In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), longtime New Yorker writer Malcolm tried to establish that journalists are unreliable. In her newest investigation, she tries to establish that lawyers are similarly unreliable.
With one exception—her heroine, Sheila McGough. “Part of the same guild of hobbled narrators” as journalists, lawyers at trial seek not to tell the truth, which is messy and shapeless, but rather to offer a “purposive storytelling” that is streamlined and easily swallowed. It is through just such a narrative, Malcolm contends, that Sheila McGough, herself a criminal defense attorney, was wrongly convicted of colluding with one of her clients to cheat a third party out of $75,000. Malcolm’s hectoring on the subject of truth is irritating, and it is also beside the point. More significantly, she does a brilliant job of uncovering the tiny inconsistencies in the record that reveal McGough’s innocence. McGough herself, as portrayed by Malcolm, is a quixotic innocent who persists in believing that she was framed by her prosecutors rather than by her client, Bob Bailes, an often-convicted con man of not inconsiderable gifts in his chosen profession. It is McGough’s unflagging loyalty to her client’she declines even to testify in her own behalf, lest she betray Bailes’s interests—her insistence on believing, for instance, that it was a series of four car wrecks that addled Bailes’s brain and led to his apparent deceptions, that lead the usually irascible Malcolm to label McGough "an exquisite heroine." Unfortunately for Malcolm’s account, McGough in all her devotion fails to fascinate. It is the elusive and now-deceased Bailes who is the most captivating character in her tale. With his charisma, his "con artist’s mesmerizing self-confidence," he was able to charm not only McGough but even one of his prosecutors, who could say no worse of him than that "he was a character."
A worthy uncovering of a miscarriage of justice, but not the skewering of the law in toto that it purports to be.