Guest Author - Donna Johnson
Deadly Lessons by Ken Englade is the true story of the Pam Smart case in Derry, New Hampshire. On May 1, 1990, Smart’s husband Gregg was murdered. The investigation led police to Smart’s 16-year-old lover, Bill Flynn, and a few of his friends. Smart herself, age 22 at the time of the murder, was tried and convicted of first-degree murder for arranging the death of her husband. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The book begins with an account of the murder and its immediate aftermath. Smart’s behavior after the murder is touched on briefly, with mentions that she did not act quite right, seemed to want to erase all traces of Gregg from her home and life and never dreamed she would be part of a murder story. The beginning sets the stage nicely for going into the background of the principal players beginning in Chapter 4, as the suspicions of family members and others involved drew me into the story and left me wanting to read on.
The histories of the Smarts and Gregg’s killers are covered enough to suffice but not in such detail that I became bored. Englade also makes use of foreshadowing by mentioning that Patrick “Pete” Randall is said to have joked to a friend about becoming a professional hit man one day. It could seem hokey in other context, but in this case, it provided a nice contrast between Randall’s character and that of the other teens involved. Flynn and Vance “J.R.” Lattime, Jr. were described by a local teacher as “impressive” young men.
Englade does a good job of presenting and explaining the taped conversations between Smart and Cecilia Pierce, the 15-year-old star witness for the prosecution. As the author states, the transcripts could be hard to follow, especially Smart’s portion peppered with cursing and frequent use of phrases such as “like,” “you know” and “you know what I mean.”
A portion of Chapter 15 that connects the Smart case to other American cases with female killers is nicely done but could have been omitted from the book in order to keep it evergreen. The six cases mentioned were all ongoing at the time the book was written, so no real resolution could be given. Englade uses the female killer phenomenon to introduce the part about the intense media interest in the Smart case, but now that portion of the book is outdated.
The trial was covered well, including the parts about Smart’s self-proclaimed detective work. In a convoluted line of reasoning, Smart explained that she pretended to know about the murder in conversations with Pierce simply to get information from the teenager and that Smart herself really knew nothing about the crime. Smart’s attitude on the stand is very well described and differences in her version of events versus the teens’ testimony are pointed out as well. The story has a nice flow with a good pace.
The epilogue is also dated, not surprisingly since the book was written in 1991, the same year the trial took place. This served to get the story out while the Smart case was fresh in Americans’ minds but limited the information available for the epilogue. For example, there is mention that a movie might be made of the case--1995’s To Die For, based on the 1992 novel of the same title, drew inspiration from the Smart case although it was technically a work of fiction. Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story, a made-for-TV movie, was released in 1991, also after the book was published.
Despite the dated aspects of the book, Deadly Lessons is an informative, yet quick and easy read. The Internet gives today’s readers the ability to quickly research updates on any people involved in this case, so the fact that the book is 20 years old at the time of this review doesn’t really matter. I highly recommend this book as a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about the Smart case.
Disclaimer: I purchased my copy of Deadly Lessons with my own money prior to becoming a BellaOnline Editor. I have not received any form of compensation for my review. This review reflects my honest opinion of the book and has not been influenced in any way by the author, publisher or any other party. My copy of Deadly Lessons is the July 1991 St. Martin’s paperback edition.