Over the last two years, we have looked at a number of works of crime fiction that began their literary journey in serial form. In the last post we looked briefly at Notting Hill Mystery which was published in Once A Week magazine in 1862, and today I’d like to examine a much more modern use of the weekly storytelling technique. For 12 weeks, towards the end of 2014 millions of listeners flocked to Serial, a weekly podcast from the makers of This American Life. It became the most popular podcast of all time and requests by the producers for assistance with funding for a second series were met by an extraordinary response. The funding was found within a week. If you haven’t listened to it yet then I won’t spoil the story in this post. What I wanted to do was examine how a very traditional form of storytelling helped create a modern global phenomenon.
At face value, Serial should not work. A modern-day 12 part analysis of a real-life murder case from 1999, told by a journalist with no previous exposure to the case, doesn’t sound like it would work. Add in the fact that the story is told in podcast (i.e. radio) format and it really doesn’t sound like a valid premise. Except it is. It really is. The case features the tragic murder of Hae Min Lee, a popular teenage high-school student from Baltimore. She disappeared after leaving school one day and after a six-week search her body was found and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, arrested. Syed was later convicted and remains in prison to this day. Hearing his adult voice on the podcast is both unsettling and compelling.
As a piece of nonfiction, it put me in mind of a number of titles we have looked at here before. The most obvious is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), but it also reminds me of People Who Eat Darkness (2011) by Richard Lloyd, and Somebody’s husband, somebody’s son (1984) by Gordon Burn. What Sarah Koenig and her team set out to do with Serial is look at the facts of the case as they were presented during the trial. They point out the flaws, the inconsistencies and they attempt to make sense of the conviction, and, ultimately, Koenig offers her own view in the form of the verdict she herself would have given had she been a juror. Throughout the 12 episodes, a number of things struck me, first about the story, second about how Koenig chose to tell it, and finally about the reaction to the podcast. What follows will not spoil the podcast if you haven’t listened to it,
- Had Koenig not identified flaws in the case against Syed then there would have been no jeopardy in the story and that would not have sustained a 12-week project. If you haven’t listened yet then please don’t be surprised to learn that the state’s case was far from rock solid.
- Koenig interviewed a number of people, some of whom gave evidence at the trial, who clearly were unaware of key components of the timeline of the murder. They expressed shock at what Koenig told them and it was fascinating to hear their belief system being questioned, often by themselves.
- When something becomes popular you can pretty much guarantee that someone will write a why I stopped listening/reading/watching article. This happened repeatedly during the 12-week broadcast. Popularity dictates that things must be liked and loathed in equal measure. This is the downside of living in a world where people think that balanced journalism means having two people with polar opposite views of a single issue go head to head in the name of objectivity. The detractors’ comments were along the following lines,
- Why are we so obsessed with the murders of pretty young women?
- Hae Min Lee, the poor victim, has been forgotten in Koenig’s desire to tell a story.
- Koenig is dumbing down the law with her pop jurisprudence approach.
- Why didn’t Koenig delve further into the issue of how prisoners are treated and rehabilitated into society?
- The podcast is a clash between the search for truth (such as outlined in the episode involving representatives from the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project) and Koenig’s desire to tell a story.
None of these things are easy to answer, but the facts are fascinating. Well over a million people have listened to the podcast. If you are included in that number then you will have probably made your own mind up about some of the issues listed above. For me, there are several interesting points to take away. Firstly, at the beginning of each episode, Koenig uses the phrase one story, told week by week. She never set out to do anything else. Second, popularity is really judged by how quickly something is spoofed. In this regard Serial really was top drawer. If you’ve listened to it then do yourself a favour and search out the Saturday Night Live spoof. It is outstanding and would no doubt have added fuel to the detractors’ fire that the law was being dumbed down. Finally, though, my view is that as a modern use of an old storytelling format Serial is a triumph. For me, it is yet another example of our intense fascination with crime stories, real or imagined. But it is also another example of how the craft of storytelling is as important as the story itself. There are many different ways Koenig could have told the story. For some reason, she chose to tell it week by week, without pictures. She let the listeners fill in all the blanks for themselves.
Brave, compelling and unique.