We’ve been talking about the upcoming Books in Bloom Festival the past couple of weeks. As part of my preparation for attending, I started reading a book that will be the subject of one of the featured talks–Brooks Blevins’s Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South.
This books tells the strange story of Connie Francis, a drifter who was murdered in Stone County, Arkansas, in the spring of 1929 by several local men. That anecdote in and of itself doesn’t really stand out in the annals of true crime, but the fact that several months later Francis testified at his own murder trial does. (No, you didn’t read that wrong. The murder victim testified at his killers’ trial.)
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Ghost of the Ozarks. I love reading both true crime and history, so the idea of exploring a somewhat obscure but bizarre case from the 1920s appealed to me to begin with, but the unexpected twists in the story made this book a definite page-turner. I like to consider myself an experienced armchair detective. I’ve read and watched a lot of true crime and fictional crime stories and am usually pretty good about guessing who the killer is/what will happen next. (If only those detectives on Law and Order reruns would listen to me when I shout suggestions at the TV, they’d solve some of those cases so much faster.) That being said, this story veered off in directions I did not anticipate at all. Several plot revelations literally made me gasp aloud.
But beyond just being a fascinating story, this book is also a smart and thought-provoking but accessible social history of the place and time. I think it would have been easy to have focused on the sensational details of the crime and ignore larger issues at play, but Blevins effectively weaves discussion of the socioeconomic factors at work between the various persons involved, as well as examinations of how stereotypical assumptions of the Ozarks directed the media portrayal of the crime. He also shows how the story illustrates various sociological phenomena of the time, including migration away from the area and attitudes toward the police. Rather than seeming like random diversions that distract from the story of Connie Francis, these observations provide excellent context.
If you’re intrigued by the social history/regional studies/local studies aspect of this book but are inclined to avoid it because you don’t like the sometimes gory genre of true crime, you should still read this book. I’m really not bothered by that sort of thing, but I was pleasantly surprised by how little Blevins dwells on the gore aspect of the story. Other than a relatively brief discussion of the crime at the beginning of the book and in one other place (in the midst of the trial), the book focuses far more on the backstory that led up to crime and also the aftermath.
Have you read this book? Do you want to read it now? What are some of your favorite true crime books? What are some of your favorite books about local history? Tell us all about it in the comments!