If you like mysteries, one is unfolding every Thursday morning as a podcast from Sarah Koenig and Julie Synder of the NPR series This American Life. It’s based on a murder that happened in 1999 and the podcast, Serial, has captured the ears and imagination of millions of people. I recently read about it in the WSJ and listened to the existing episodes (yes, I’m a little late in all this, but the series isn’t over yet). It’s addictive listening, as Sarah reports each week with a new podcast and clues found from the trial and the defense attorney’s documents.
Here’s how they describe it on the Serial website:
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
Sarah Koenig, who hosts Serial, first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago.
What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers.
After I listened to this first episode I had a few reactions I’d like to share. It’s a compelling story well told. I like Sarah’s open and conversational manner. She shares asides of what she’s thinking as the story unfolds – so you feel like you’re listening to her in her living room as she shares with a friend. It pushes the envelope of personal journalism too – you can hear Sarah try to keep a skeptical distance and also get seduced by the excitement of her search for “truth.” It makes the whole experience very intimate and immediate.
The basic story seems simple: a young woman named Hae Min Lee was murdered, police focused on two young men, Jay and Adnan. Jay said Adnan killed her, Adnan claimed innocence, but ultimately was convicted on Jay’s testimony. The entire case revolves around their different versions of what may or may not have happened. Their conflicting versions are dramatically different and that engages your curiosity – who’s telling the truth? What is the truth? After all these years (the murder happened in 1999) can we really know the truth?
Here’s what Sarah Koenig has to say about it, from an interview in Rolling Stone:
I love serialized stories of any kind. I’m a huge sucker for any kind of series. My hope is just that we can keep making them, and that even if it’s not life or death, or something with the stakes quite as stark as this one, that it will be just as compelling and people will get just as hooked in because we’re doing it right. We’ve chosen a story that has compelling characters, a plot that we want to get to the end of, and we’re using all the storytelling skills that we have to tell it in the right way. That’s my hope for it.
I’ve read that the series will likely be completed sometime in December. I’ve listened to all the episodes so far, the next one comes out December 4th. As Sarah and her team pour over the case, interview people and talk out how they see the evidence, I’m struck by how your perspective and point of view shifts back and forth between conflicting versions of events. You also gain some insight into how detectives acquire and sift through the evidence. While they encounter inconsistencies, they make crucial choices about what leads to explore and pursue.
As we plunge deep into the story I do feel/hope we’re getting closer to the truth, or as much truth as Sarah can deliver. But, we’re not there yet. After spending the past few days listening to all the episodes so far, it’s hard to wait. I’m ready for the next one – when it comes December 4th, I’ll have plenty of company.