Stranger than Fiction

True Crime stories have always found a curious audience. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is considered a classic. Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, about serial killer Ted Bundy, Helter Skelter, about Charles Manson, plus many other examples of the type, are entrenched in contemporary popular literature.  Many takes on the subject try to match the crime with the person who either definitely did, or is accused of having done it, whatever "it" is. Two recent examples, the podcast "Serial, "and Netflix's "Making a Murderer" follow that same trend.

Both tease listeners and viewers with a high-stakes question -- did he, Adnan Syed, or Stephen Avery, really do it? Are the two men in question capable of having done it? The first season of "Serial" filled twelve episodes. "Making a Murderer," ten, and those who have listened to or watched them will know that the answers to both questions are more or less inconclusive. Does it make them any less satisfying to listen to or watch? Not to me, because I found myself thinking about the medium as much as the message. As a former documentary filmmaker, I appreciated the "let them tell it themselves" approach of the filmmakers who made the Avery story. A strength of that series was the interviews with the characters involved, the picture of life in that Wisconsin town. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who wrote and directed the series, first noticed the case when they were journalism students at Columbia. Good foresight, and I think they did a terrific job.  But anyone who has worked as a journalist or documentarian will know that even if you don't see them, the people who deliver the story are present in their choices of what and what not to film, or record; their choices and style of edits. Anonymous narration is a convention of journalism that began with a desire to present facts objectively. Common sense says that goal is impossible to reach. Communication is human, and humans are by nature subjective. Despite their intentions, the filmmakers can't help being who they are.

"Serial," on the other hand, didn't even try for that illusion. Sarah Koenig got interested in the story, decided to pursue it, and narrates every single episode, most of which include her ongoing thoughts about the case, about Adnan, the other characters, and conversations between Koenig and her producer and co-workers about the case. At first I found it annoying. I didn't think I would get through the series so dominated by a single voice. The makers of "Serial" fit what was called in the 60's "new" journalism, by writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and others, who published long, rambling pieces that included themselves as characters.

In fiction classes I used to tell students that if they're going to have a first person narrator, the story narrated better have something to do with her or him. Otherwise, the narrator is just a reporter of distant events, and who cares, really? Sarah Koenig is not creating fiction, but I found I wanted more of her.  More context. Why is she asking all those questions, making assumptions about Adnan? Where is she coming from? Interestingly, the voice I found so personal was fully scripted, not spontaneous after all, as she revealed in an interview with David Remnick. Instead of answering my questions, this behind-the-scenes interview only made me want to ask more.