David Mamet’s The Old Religion
If you ask someone to name the most unusual American crime novel they have ever read they would perhaps give you the title of something written by James Sallis, Paul Auster or Thomas Pynchon, but the most unusual novel I have read in the genre is David Mamet’s little-known The Old Religion (1997). Mamet’s rare excursion into the novel format is his dramatisation of the murder trial of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia in 1913. Frank was a Jewish factory owner who was accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year old caucasian gentile in his employ. In a case that gripped the nation and went to the very heart of race relations in the United States, Frank was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death, largely on the testimony of Jim Conley, a black janitor at the factory who was the police’s first suspect and is believed by many historians today to be the real killer. Unlike many crime books which are non-fiction novels, The Old Religion is not a step-by-step reenactment of the crime, case and aftermath, rather Mamet tells the story through a detailed imagining of Frank’s thought processes. In the first half of the novel, Frank spends very little time thinking about the case; instead, he turns his brilliant mind to his cold and dispassionate views on subjects such as history, religion, watchmaking and even whether or not he should discard a paperclip. But when there are no more subjects to distract himself with, Frank finally turns his thoughts to the case: he considers his attachment to the secular society which has condemned him, his anger at the Christians in the jury and the hordes outside the courtroom who are baying for his blood partly because he is Jewish, and his inability to express sorrow or emotion in the courtroom, another factor which certainly prejudiced the press’ and the public’s opinions of him. From this, Mamet has created a thrillingly dramatic and moving novel which, while almost devoid of any action, takes its drama from Frank’s interior monologue, especially the concision and exactness of each formed thought. An example of which is his analysis of the movement of an oscillating fan:
‘Each time,’ he thought, ‘the fan returns in much the same way – making the allowance for the minute but inevitable wear inside the machine; making allowance, again, for the small but, I am sure, measurable shift of the fan along the desk – although it does seem fixed. Though the foam padding on its base no doubt reduces to near nil its motion. Even so,’ he thought, ‘even so. Even so. If I left for a period of months, on my return would I not see the fan had shifted, slightly? If I had marked its position out, on my departure, would I not see, upon my return, that change? And if I could not measure it, would not an absence of years…” He cast his mind ahead, to a return to his office in decades, in centuries, in aeons, until a time when he would not be disappointed to find the fan yet unmoved.
‘For it must move,’ he thought.
‘And if it moves, yes, even after the passage of centuries, if the passage of time shows it to have moved, then it must have been in motion all the time. For a measurable jump is nothing save the aggregate of these shifts we are incompetent t0 perceive.’
Leo Frank’s sentence was commuted from the death penalty to life imprisionment. Frank was seriously wounded when he had his throat slashed by a fellow inmate at Milledgeville State Penitentiary. On the night of August 15, 1915, while recovering in the prison hospital, Frank was kidnapped by a mob of around thirty people who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan. The kidnappers drove Frank to Frey’s Gin, two miles east of Marietta, where they lynched him and took a photograph of the hanging corpse. Many of the Knights were alleged to been well connected in Georgia society (and some went on to play a large part in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan which happened around this time), although no criminal charges were ever brought forward for the murder of Frank, one of the ringleaders of the lynchers is reputed to have been the former Governor of Georgia Joseph Mackay Brown. As was the case with many lynchings, the photograph was reproduced as a postcard and sold in stores throughout the Deep South.
In 1986, Leo Frank was given a posthumous pardon by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, although this pardon only acknowledged the State’s culpability in Frank’s death through its failure to protect him. A full pardon and exoneration was not given due to a lack of available records which had survived the passage of time and which may have proved a wrongful conviction. Although not everyone is convinced of Leo Frank’s innocence, Mamet has created an undeniably brilliant fictional portrayal of one of the most shameful moments in America’s troubled history and a devastating critique of the system which failed to stop, and even encouraged, Leo Frank’s tragic fate.