The Rope: A True Story of Murder, heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP by Alex Tresniowski


Eh, you’ll figure it out because nothing’s better than murder mysteries on cold evenings and stay-at-home weekends. Open a whodunit, and look in the attic for the killer. You might find him in the basement. Or, as in the new book “The Rope” by Alex Tresniowski, take a look back in history.

By all accounts, Marie Smith was a good girl.

Just 10 years old, she was obedient, sweet-tempered, and helpful; everyone loved her, so when she disappeared one November day in 1910, nobody could imagine who would take her. When her body was found in a wooded area some days later, however, fingers began to point, and they pointed at Tom Williams.

Williams was one of those people who was content to live quietly. With no formal home and no formal job, Williams got by doing tasks that white folks needed done and so, because Asbury Park, New Jersey, was a small town then, it was natural that he’d be acquainted with little Marie. Based on that, and because he was Black, Williams was arrested and most people thought that was the end of the story. At least one of Asbury Park’s influencers had his doubts, though, and he paid for an unbiased, out-of-town detective to take a look.

As a young man, Raymond Schindler was always good with details, so he was happy when his work as an insurance claims adjuster led him to New York, where he was hired at a fledgling detective agency. That really put his sleuthing skills to work, though the truth was that when he went to Asbury Park that winter, Schindler had never investigated a murder case before.

Even so, he quickly zeroed in on a suspect who wasn’t Williams, though as Schindler became convinced of Williams’ innocence, Williams remained in jail. Word of the situation reached anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, and the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Because if anyone was in danger of being lynched, it was Tom Williams ...

Most of the time, when you sit with a mystery novel on a chilly day, you can feel sure that everything will be tied up neatly inside a few hours. Not so with “The Rope”; this true story is way more involved.

To be fair, there’s a lot for author Tresniowski to unpack. A growing city, the creation of modern detection, the hard fight against racism, and the activism of Ida B. Wells all met at an intersection with so many other, society-changing things that the long-ago death of a little girl can seem like a pebble in a gravel pit. Still, tragic as that was, the remarkableness of Smith’s murder and this crime’s solving shouldn’t be diminished; in fact, there are some parts here that’ll make you gasp with cliff-hanging movie-worthiness, and reach for more.

One thing: Be aware that there are a lot of similar names in this story and attention must be paid or you’ll be befuddled. Even so, why you’ll devour “The Rope” should be no mystery.

”The Rope: A True Story of Murder, heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP” by Alex Tresniowski, 2021, 37 Ink/Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $28

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