Thursday, July 17, 2008

Midnight book review: The Stringbean Murders

I could not sleep, I had no business reading either, because I had a headache from hell; the kind that makes you sure the top of your head could cave in or explode, any minute. With a headche like that one, one ought to read Pascal, the Bible, D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, Dostoyevsky, anything that might change your life. I chose a different road, and am glad I did.
In November of 1975 Warren Causey, a former Nashville Banner reporter, wrote a little book on the murders of David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife, Estelle Akeman. Stringbean was known worldwide for his HEE-HAW comedy, and his banjo prowess, but to those closest to him for his simple lifestyle amid his success as an entertainer. The murders happened on November 10, 1973. The Akemans were downed by a ruthless gunman on their own property; Stringbean was shot inside his home and Estelle ran in a panic when she heard the gunfire, but to no avail, she was shot in the head as she begged for her life.
Why is a book like this worth reading, you ask? The sole reason it is important is this: so that man and womankind do not shirk from admitting that evil is. Period. It is not so we can delve into the personal life of one of country music's most beloved stars. It is not so we can learn the technical aspects of crime and law; especially that, because from Causey's account of events, the evidence was shaky, though the investigation seemed thorough. So, if you are looking for a Pulitzer winning crime drama, this ain't it.
I read it as a curious Nashvillian, aware that I was but 11 years of age when these killings took place. It happened on Bakers Station Road, then completely rural, and only miles from the home on East Cedar Street where my dad was born. Now Bakers Station Road has flourished or descended into mass development, depending on your views. It only retains vestiges of its rural roots, and has perhaps been permanently scarred by the murders of Estelle and David Akeman.
Causey's book was published the same year Marcia Trimble was murdered, 1975. I know this fact was in Causey's mind as he collected what earnings he did. I also learned in the reading of it, that Detective Tommy Jacobs, one of the lead investigators in the Stringbean murders, was mortally wounded himself in February of 1971 on Oriole Place, in the center of Green Hills. He was shot multiple times, inluding the face, arm and back as he conducted an investigation in a driveway on Oriole. I remember when I moved to Eden Avenue, but a block from there in the late eighties, my dad cautioned me about the neighborhood in a cryptic way, specifically pointing out Oriole Place as a street where hoodlums lived. Now, I suspect dad was referencing this shooting of Jacobs, but did not give details on the danger of the place. It was nothing of the sort then, in my mind, but the longer I reflect on it, the more I think my dad was on to something.
What I think Causey wanted to point out to locals that read the book: even here, in the bedroom communities of Nashville, both north and south of the urban area, crime and darkness lurk. It is something all of us in the trade know. There is no safe place. Combatting the evil of which I spoke earlier is a sticky thing; recalling Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's words on the subject startle me:

If it were only so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This pithy question has led sane men to drink themselves under tables, and mad ones to the altars of confession. I submit this question does not stand for the proposition that men or women who wreak havoc through crime are misguided and unloved creatures in need of treatment instead of punishment. On the contrary, I think it means we are all capable of, indeed all commit great evil. To combat evil is not as simple as it seems, it is not just about weeding out bad people from good. Specifically, fighting crime is about the laborious task of proof, of collecting evidence of giving up exculpatory proof that may exonerate the innocent, and presenting credible inculpatory proof that will damn the guilty. That said, it is vital to remember it is not a game, it is not easy and lives are held in the balance. It is why I go to work; may I ever keep in mind Solzhenitsyn's thoughts on the matter as I labor to do good, knowing I am shot through with capacity for evil.


Susan said...

I always enjoy you posts! You are a GREAT writer and thinker. A and S

Wallace Mercer said...

thanks much to A and S, readers, commenters, friends. I appreciate your encouragement.