Book Review – DUMMY (1974) by Ernest Tidyman

dumy-wh-allenDUMMY by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1974, W.H. Allen, 210pp) ∗∗∗∗

Blurb: First there was Ernestine Williams, a prostitute found murdered in a Chicago alleyway on November 12, 1965. She had last been seen leaving a bar with a young black mute. Donald Lang, “The Dummy” was arrested. It was the beginning of one of the most bizarre murder cases in American History. From Chicago’s South Side Donald Lang was twenty years old, poor, black, totally illiterate – and deaf and dumb. He could not talk, write, read lips, or understand sign language. It was an unprecedented legal problem: How could the accused defend himself when he could not even communicate? In bewilderment the court appointed the only man who might be able to defend the boy – a tough, determined, resourceful lawyer named Lowell Myers. Myers was also deaf. Dummy is a story of the legal process as an enormous “Catch 22”, a nightmare that ends only to begin when Lang is implicated in a second murder.

Ernest Tidyman uses all his journalistic skills in the telling of the story of Donald Lang – the deaf, dumb and illiterate young black man who was subject of two murder charges during the mid-late 1960s. Tidyman deftly works his way through the court transcripts to highlight the key components on the case focusing on Lang’s predicament and treatment and the efforts of his deaf attorney – Lowell J. Myers. Tidyman offers no opinion on Lang, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves as the story unfolds. He allows opinions from some of the key people working on the case – but only once the story is complete – via interviews with the detectives and prosecutors, This means the reader has the opportunity to form their own views as the story unfolds. Tidyman’s voice comes through in some of the early passages where he sets the scene and introduces us to Lang and Myers before the courtroom battles commence.

Tidyman was in heavy demand at the time of writing this book following his Oscar win for The French Connection and his ongoing work on the Shaft books and films. Like many of his books, Dummy started out life as a screenplay as early as 1971. Tidyman would eventually complete the project as a well-received TV Movie in 1979. For the book he enlisted the research help of fellow journalist Dorothy Storek, of the Chicago Daily News, and manuscript support of regular collaborator Phillip Rock.

Dummy then is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in legal history or the rights of the handicapped to be fairly represented in court. It is also a book that doesn’t get bogged down in legal talk and is also accessible to the general reader.