|The inimitable Janet Malcolm has previously probed the soft white underbellies of psychiatry, journalism, literary biography, and a half-dozen other disciplines. In The Crime of Sheila McGough, she takes on the legal profession. At first glance this may seem like a ludicrously easy target: who doesn't have his doubts about the vast army of ambulance chasers, shysters, and corporate sharks? But as always, Malcolm has more complicated fish to fry. What fascinates her about the legal system is the endless, agonizing clash of contending narratives. "The transcripts of trials at law--even of routine criminal prosecutions and tiresome civil disputes--are exciting to read," she notes. "They record contests of wit and will that have the stylized structure and dire aura of duels before dawn."|
To prove her point, Malcolm has chosen one particular prosecution--or, as the facts seem to indicate, persecution. In 1986 a Virginia attorney named Sheila McGough took on the case of a con artist named Bob Bailes. First she defended this charming chiseler against a charge of bank fraud, and lost; then, two years later, she went to bat for him when he was indicted for a bizarre, insurance-related bunco game. Again she lost, and Bailes--whose tale-spinning amounted to a kind of artistry--remained in the slammer. At this point, most advocates would have moved on. Not McGough: "After her client went to prison, she continued defending him as if nothing had happened.... She remained at his side and fought for him as if he were Alfred Dreyfus, instead of the small-time con man, with an unfortunate medical history and an interesting imagination, that he was." Nothing, it turns out, clogs the machinery of the judicial system more thoroughly than an honest--okay, pathologically honest--attorney.
As McGough continued to fight for her client, she aroused the wrath, and eventually the suspicion, of the court. Surely this nutty crusade must have some hidden agenda. Malcolm makes a strong argument for her subject's innocence: "Veracity was her defining characteristic, like the color of an orange. Her behavior may have been odd, deviant, maddening, but her devotion to the truth--almost like a disease in its helpless literalness--was an inspiriting given." The court, however, thought otherwise. In 1990 McGough was found guilty of 14 counts of felony (most of which made her an accessory to Bailes's depredations) and sentenced to 3 years in prison. Only after her release in 1996 did she enlist the author on her behalf. Unlike previous objects of Malcolm's scrutiny, McGough made little effort to finesse the narrative. All the more remarkable, then, that the most sublime cross-examiner in American letters found her innocent.
The Crime of Sheila McGough is, needless to say, a stinging critique of the legal system. "Without the thinner of common sense," the author insists, "the law is a toxic substance." (Malcolm, who's gotten a liberal serving of legal toxins during the 1980s and 1990s, is surely speaking from experience.) Yet her book is an equally brilliant brief on human behavior (and misbehavior). And as she plunges deeper into the legal labyrinth, her quest for the truth and nothing but the truth leads her to some superb insights about that other form of imaginative advocacy--writing. "The truth," she offers, "does not make a good story; that's why we have art." But in The Crime of Sheila McGough, Malcolm has it both ways. Deliciously witty and almost supernaturally aware, her book is a true crime story in every sense of the phrase. --James Marcus