Friday, May 15, 2009

Not All Created Equal

An element of the contemporary obituary is the zinger, or something called the stinging telegraph. Marilyn Johnson describes these in her popular book The Dead Beat as a deadpan joke, or juxtaposition. All zingers are not created equal. Some belong in the Hall of Fame.

Take today's obituary on Jay C. Smith, a person who was convicted of murder but later freed. No, it wasn't DNA evidence. The obituary is singularly interesting because it is not about what you might expect.

Mr. Smith was a onetime high school principal who veered off into several episodes of crime, all of which make his conviction for armed robbery of a Sears store seem like a health code violation.

Joseph Wambaugh enters Douglas Martin's terrific tale as the writer he is who wrote a book about Mr. Smith and the belief that the man was guilty of some grisly things, despite what the courts may have ruled.

Mr. Martin, being an excellent reporter, doesn't take sides. This is obvious. But he does let a Wambaugh quote from an e-mail he received yesterday close the piece: "I do not celebrate the death of any man, but Satan does. A No. 1 draft pick has finally arrived."

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