For Fans of Serial
Who killed Hae Min Lee? That's the question asked by the podcast Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig and produced by the folks behind NPR's This American Life. Serial ran for about twelve weeks, releasing a new episode every week with more facts, more questions, more investigation. Koenig investigates a real crime from 1999: high school student Hae Min Lee was murdered, and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was eventually convicted of the crime based on the testimony of just one person, a classmate of theirs named Jay.
Throughout the course of the podcast, though, Koenig pokes holes in the case from all sides: Jay's story changed several times from police interview to trial. No one has a motive. There's no physical evidence against Adnan, but Adnan doesn't have an alibi. Who is lying, and why? If you're like me (I burned through all twelve episodes on two flights and one incredibly late night) the end of Serial left you with more questions and precious few answers.
Serial will return for a second season, but until then, check out some of the books and movies below, all about real crimes and the journalists who get tangled up in them. Maybe one of them will have a more satisfying ending than Serial (no promises!).
True Crime Films
The Imposter is a 2012 documentary about a thirteen-year-old boy who disappeared in Texas in 1994. He's found three years later, alive and in Spain - or is he? Someone certainly came back from Spain, but he doesn't act like the son the family remembers, or even look that much like him. Does this family truly have their son back, or is someone trying to take advantage of a truly terrible situation?
The Staircase is a documentary about the 2003 death of Kathleen Peterson. Her husband, author Michael Peterson, is the prime suspect in this case (like they say on Serial, boyfriends, husbands and exes are always the first suspects). Serial and The Staircase have a lot in common, particularly their pacing: The Staircase is made up of eight 45 minute episodes, dealing out questions and answers and then even more questions piece by piece.
The Paradise Lost trilogy (not to be confused with the Italian poetry of the same name) is a series of three films investigating the case against the so-called West Memphis Three, three teenaged boys who were accused of murdering three younger boys as a Satanic ritual. Much like in Adnan Syed's case, the prosecution's case hinged largely on the testimony of just one person - one of the accused. If you're looking for a story with more of an "ending" than Serial, this trilogy may satisfy you - but then again, it may not.
For the Book-Lover
John Safran's God'll Cut You Down has the subtitle "The Tangled Tale of A White Supremacist, A Black Hustler, A Murder, and How I Lost A Year in Mississippi," so you know you're in for some complicated twists and turns. Author John Safran has a schtick - he's part journalist, part reality TV star, and he interviewed a white supremacist, Richard Barrett, for a TV segment that never aired. Then Barrett was murdered. A lot of Safran's book is more about Safran's thoughts about the crime, and his sometimes questionable actions while trying to dig up more dirt. Is there a line for journalists when investigating a crime? Can they bribe to get answers? How many times can they call a suspect's ex-girlfriend before it stops being investigation and starts being harassment? If you're interested in the ethics of true crime reporting, this book will interest you.
Love and Terror on the Howling Planes of Nowhere, by Poe Ballantine, is about the mysterious and gruesome death of Ballantine's neighbor, a math professor at the local college. This book is part memoir, part true crime, which means that it's as much about Ballantine's wife and autistic son as it his amateur investigation into his neighbor's death.
The subtitle gives away the game in The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father - and Finding the Zodiac Killer, by Gary L. Stewart. Stewart has never known his father. He was adopted as a baby, and it wasn't until his birth mother contacted him that he knew anything about either of his biological parents. His birth mother sent him a photograph of his birth father, and almost by accident Stewart discovered an incredible resemblance between the photo and the police sketch of the Zodiac Killer. He started digging, and the circumstantial evidence and coincidences started piling up. This book is about identity and family in addition to being about crime, although if you're looking for definitive answers, you won't find them here.
Read These Two Together
Finally, a pair of books that absolutely must be read together. Start with Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss. Jeffery MacDonald claimed a pack of wild hippies killed his wife and children - several people were skeptical, including author Joe McGinniss, who wrote a book detailing his close look at the crime. A large portion of McGinniss's book covers what MacDonald was like as a person, more than the crime itself, something that MacDonald didn't appreciate: he even sued McGinniss for libel. Which brings us to the second book in our pair, The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm, which investigates the relationship between McGinniss and MacDonald, and asks good questions, like: what does a journalist owe his subject? Can you ruin the reputation of a man already serving time for murdering his family? And of course - can Malcolm, who is reporting on McGinniss's reporting, be entirely unbiased herself?
Chelsey wants to talk to you about Serial. Seriously, what is the deal with Jay?