A Review of Apparent Danger
Apparent Danger is a book hot off the press by David Stokes. It is the story of the murder trial J. Frank Norris. It is exciting to see someone tackle the difficult task of writing about the enigma that is Norris. I am impressed by the effort and the product, with a few exceptions that I will deal with later.
I'm not sure the last time that I read a book that I have had such mixed emotions about. There are elements of this book that are infuriating and others that are quite intriguing. I want to like it. I did finally begin to enjoy it, but I found portions to be far from enjoyable.
The book focuses on the events leading up to involving the shooting of Dexter Chipps by J. Frank Norris. There is some background given on Norris, the church, and the town of Fort Worth. The details are wonderfully researched. The writing is superb. The pace is quick. The story is divided into forty-six chapters which helps the reader feel progress in reading.
The trial of J. Frank Norris is an intriguing story. I am convinced that fact is greater than fiction, and that well-written history trumps any novel. The author portrays Norris as on the verge of becoming the national leader of Fundamentalism, until his national image is destroyed by the events covered. This is an astute observation. Norris was already a mover in the world of Fundamentalism. He may have achieved even more notoriety, but with his combative nature I'm not sure he would have. It is clear that the direction of his ministry, and the opinion about him by many former allies, changed from this point.
The coverage of the events leading to the death of Chipps and the trial itself is absolutely fantastic. These events are sped through in many of the biographies available. The level of detail and the skillful presentation are worthy of the highest praise. It is an exciting and entertaining read, even for those that are not familiar with the legend of J. Frank Norris.
THE BOOK'S BIGGEST ISSUE
My initial impression of the book was very negative, and I feel the reason for this must be dealt with at length. The author goes to great lengths to attach Norris, and even Fundamentalism, to the Ku Klux Klan. This is a common theme in about the first third of the book (see chapters seven and eight especially) and then disappears almost entirely once the main story takes off. I have seen this attempted by others and found their evidence scanty at best. The author does provide some new information on these grounds that I have not seen elsewhere. He also is guilty of using some very poor arguments in proving the association, such as the fact that Norris and the Klan endorsed the same political candidates at times.
I firmly believe that the author is misguided and in some cases misinformed when it comes to the relationships (if any) between Norris, Fundamentalism, and the Klan. He claims a "close association... between fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's" in the Preface. There are no direct ties between Fundamentalism and the KKK as movements, then or now. These are two entirely separate entities that have nothing in common. I will not overreact and state that no Fundamentalist was a Klansman (or vice versa) because I am certain those individuals did exist. However, couldn't I use the same logic in vilifying other groups by attaching some of their members to a despicable organization like the Klan?
There were points that Norris and the Klan agreed upon, but there were others (most obviously concerning Jews) in which they vastly differed. To me, most of Norris' ties to the Klan are more political than substantive. He gained a powerful ally to battle a powerful foe because they shared that common foe. He did this sort of thing many times throughout his career. He most famously did this when after decades of railing against Roman Catholicism he began to praise the Pope for standing against Communism.
Even the author admits that there is no evidence that Norris was ever a member of the Klan (p.53), but not without implying that he could have been since the Klan records are sketchy. Another time he admits that Norris probably wasn't a member since he was too strong of a maverick by nature.
I think that the major issue though is not tying Norris to the Klan. It is deeper than that. The issue is tying Fundamentalism as a movement to the Klan. This is a ludicrous intellectual and factual leap.
I think the mistake in associating Fundamentalism as a movement and the KKK is by putting the modern connotation of the term "fundamentalism" to the true definition that was in use at the time. Back then a Fundamentalist was one that adhered to the "fundamentals of the faith" and stood against modernism. Today the term has come to signify a backwards, militia-like group that thrives on hatred. At that time this twisted definition would be almost totally out of place.
This issue almost ruins the book. It has almost no bearing on the main story line of the book, which you will notice because the KKK is barely ever mentioned once the story picks up. Why the author would choose to muddy his story with such a peripheral issue is beyond me. I think the reason why the issue is pushed has more to do with the author's agenda then from historical fact. It could be that he simply wanted to paint Norris as a dark figure, which has been done effectively by others without dragging in the KKK.
I regret that the author did not include endnotes of some type. There are some amazing factoids that are included, but there is no way to source them. There is a list of "major sources" given for each chapter. Being acquainted with many of these I am at a loss for where some facts are based. I realize that the style of this work is more of a narrative history. This makes it a wonderful read (especially when so expertly done), but makes it less than an ideal source for further research. I think a major reason for its omission is size. The book has a total of 390 pages. The first 365 are narrative.
The book is very well written and flows with a brisk pace. The forty-six chapter are consumed quickly and are generally divided so as to tell one facet of the tale in each. There is a lot of information crammed into the pages, but you never feel like you are overloaded. There are also a lot of interesting tid bits thrown in that add spice to the story, such as telling how famed golfer Ben Hogan was a paper boy selling the special edition papers about the shooting. This shows that there was quite a bit of research about the era and setting.
In the end, this is a very well written and interesting true crime story. It is not a proper biography of Norris and falls well short of telling his complete story. There is very little new critical information that can be gleaned from this book that can be added to what is told elsewhere. The only source that rivals it in covering this particular event is probably the thesis by E. Ray Tatum titled "The J. Frank Norris Murder Trial of 1927".
If you are an admirer of Norris: you should skip this book and read The Fighting Parson by Homer Ritchie.
If you are researching Norris and his ministry: you will enjoy the story and come away with some new and interesting facts, but you would probably find God's Rascal by Barry Hankins more helpful.
If you despise Norris, I think you can still enjoy this story.
If you love a good true crime story, you will like this book.
If you just want and interesting book to read, this definitely is one.