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"The Crime of Sheila McGough"

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The Crime of Sheila McGough (Knopf; $22) is, to put it plainly, charmlessness. And it is Janet Malcolm's task to show how lack of charm can lead a good woman to disbarment and a prison term for crimes (probably) not committed. McGough's overzealous defense of a con man was perceived as fraud, and so the book reads more as a comment on the importance of personality than as a revelation of a miscarriage of justice. She surely didn't deserve prison, but the courts hardly deserved a lawyer who, as her own attorney put it, "would take on a cause and flog it to death." Malcolm examines her dislike for Sheila even as she tracks down the witnesses against her. She doesn't quite succeed in transforming the unpleasant into the worthwhile. The creaky machinery of the legal thriller makes you yearn for a big payoff -- but no one, except poor Sheila, goes to jail.


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