A Death in Belmont (P.S.)

A Death in Belmont (P.S.) - Sebastian Junger Junger wrote one of my favorite books, The Perfect Storm. (Made into a mediocre film, but that shouldn't be held against it.) I can't rate this book quite as high--that book had some absolutely awesome, spine-tingling moments I'll never forget, and this book doesn't match it. I also wouldn't agree with the blurb inside that called it reminiscent of Capote's In Cold Blood, which I read only a few days ago. It might similarly be about a gruesome murder, but their virtues are quite opposite. Capote claimed to have invented a new from, the "non-fiction novel." As a novel I'd rate it highly--the writing is first-rate and worthy of being called literature. But as non-fiction I consider it unreliable for a number of reasons. With Junger's A Death in Belmont, I'm not particularly impressed with the prose--indeed on that dimension it falls short of The Perfect Storm. But as non-fiction, as a work of journalism, it's first-rate and convincing in ways I feel Capote's classic book is not. The origins of the book lie in a piece of Junger's family lore summed up in a photograph in the book--of Junger as an infant held by his mother, and caught also in the photograph Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Stranger. While DeSalvo was working for the Jungers in the Spring of 1963, Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled to death little more than a mile from their home. A black man, Roy Smith, was convicted of her murder. Junger's mother has always believed Smith was innocent and Goldberg another victim of the Boston Stranger. In telling the story of these two men and the crimes of which they were convicted, Junger examines the American justice system and its flaws: "Between 1973 and 200 more than one hundred people have been released from death row--over 3 percent of the current death-row population--because they were later proved to be innocent." He later adds that of those found to be innocent "one out of five confessed to the crime." Those are sobering statistics. Moreover, half-way in the book given the evidence Junger had related, I thought Smith was probably guilty--although I wouldn't have voted for conviction had I been on the jury--by the end of the book Junger convinced me he was probably innocent. Note the qualification "probably" and one thing Junger wrestles with throughout is the question not simply of guilt and innocence but doubt--particularly that elusive definition of "reasonable doubt" and how society comes to terms with it. For the "ability of citizens to scrutinize the theories insisted on by their government is their only protection against abuse of power and, ultimately, against tyranny." I do like how Junger used the cases involving DeSalvo and Smith to examine that issue. If I have any complaint, it's that I wish Junger had included his sources--there are no notes of them. At one point for instance, he stated that the polygraph has "error rates of 30 percent." I have no problem believing that--polygraphs after all don't really measure truth--only a physiological response. But I'd have liked to have known on what basis that and other claims were made. Definitely an engrossing book that asked questions every citizen that has to sit in a jury box should think about.