American Predator · Chris Benoit · Kolker on poker
And more Theranos, AND a book-review poll!
|Best Evidence||Apr 2, 2020||1|
Hello, everyone! And welcome, new subscribers; thanks for joining us here. Eve’s had a bit of unscheduled excitement, so it’s me again today. I hope you all remain well and safe. I remain…in the middle of Yellow Bird, and I don’t know why it’s taking me so long to get through it but I WILL have a review for you by Monday.
In the meantime, let’s pick the book I read for (…also) April! You’ll see our second-place finishers from last time, American Sherlock and the Victorian bad-seed story, back in play, plus some forgery, some “waste management,” and hip-hop on trial. Vote right here! — SDB
Our look at the 2020 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime wraps up with American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan. Israel Keyes, the predator in question, was captured in 2012 after a streak of rapes and killings that stretched back to the mid-1990s.
American Predator opens with the February 2012 disappearance of Samantha Koenig from the coffee kiosk where she worked in Anchorage, Alaska. Local detectives and FBI agents work to unravel what happened to Samantha, initially predictably focusing on her father and boyfriend. The case begins to break when ATM withdrawals from Samantha’s account start to ping along the I-10 corridor in Arizona and Texas. Ultimately, an enterprising and instinctual Texas Ranger who saw a nationwide all-points bulletin is able to pinpoint with eerie precision where in the state the suspect will next show up. Keyes is stopped, searched, and taken into custody.
This first portion of American Predator, focused on the identification and apprehension of Keyes, is meticulous and detailed, but moves along at a nice clip. All the pieces that lined up for law enforcement officials to track Keyes’s cross-country movements and hone in on his location are pretty astonishing. With Keyes in custody, the book delves into familiar territory for procedural enthusiasts and those of us well-versed in serial killer lore: interagency squabbles over who will be put in charge of questioning Keyes, strategies on how to get him to talk about Samantha’s disappearance, and the unraveling of at least some of his additional crimes.
Maybe my bandwidth for deep dives into the serial-killer psyche is capped these days, but I found the pacing a bit lacking in the back half of American Predator. A look into Keyes’s background and methodology is obviously of interest, but the portrayal of him as particularly unique feels like a bit of a stretch. The dude studied John Douglas’s Mindhunter and cited Ted Bundy as his guide for sexual sadism. The assertion that there was basically no precedent for the type of serial killer Keyes was (no uniform victim type, no fixed location, thousands of miles between victims) only tracks because those methods made it possible for him to hide in plain sight.
All in all, American Predator has some real edge-of-your-seat moments as the identification of Keyes unfolds. I can’t quibble with the quality of the writing or the meticulousness of the research, but the familiarity of the unpacking the mind of a serial killer narrative left me wanting. — Susan Howard
The judge in the Theranos trial is determined to get that show on the road this summer, as planned. In these troubled times, I’m not about to hand Law.com thirty bucks to access the article, but the hed and subhed probably give us the bulk of the intel here, to wit: the judge in the case has still not postponed the August start date, despite Elizabeth Holmes’s attorneys objecting that social-distancing restrictions make it impossible to do their jobs. I understand Their Honor’s desire to keep everyone’s eyes on that ball, but it’s going to get postponed, and the wrangling over the postponement is going to drag things out even longer, so…why not just move it to mid-September and save everyone the paperwork? — SDB
Should Vice’s Dark Side Of The Ring episodes on Chris Benoit be “your next true-crime binge”? Meredith B. Kile thinks so, explaining in her review from Tuesday that
Chris Benoit is best known as the WWE star who killed his wife and 7-year old son before taking his own life over one tragic weekend in June 2007. But Dark Side's exploration into the wrestler's life and career in "BENOIT" shows a fuller picture -- from interviews with Benoit's elder son, David, and sister-in-law, Sandra Toffoloni, to an exploration of the wrestler's deep friendship with fellow pro Eddie Guerrero, whose own death in 2005 deeply affected Benoit's mental state.
She adds that CTE may have played a part in how everything unraveled for Benoit, which most viewers who have even heard of Aaron Hernandez would likely have assumed — and singles out “BENOIT”’s take on Chris’s wife, Nancy, a wrestling figure in her own right, as praiseworthy.
I’d never even heard of Dark Side Of The Ring before Eve dropped this link in the doc, and it’s now on my season-pass list; Vice is rerunning the first episodes of the new season this Sunday if you too want to get caught up, or click on the player above. — SDB
Past guest Kevin Smokler and I had a great, process-y conversation with Lost Girls author Robert Kolker earlier this week; that’s them, above! jk, though they are both lovely, and you’ll hear that discush in next week’s The Blotter Presents. In the meantime, here’s a (budge-looking, but functional) listing of his investigative pieces for New York. The one I’m currently avoiding other tasks marinating in: “Manhattan Fold ’Em,” on Molly Bloom’s high-stakes game. I haven’t seen that film, and may never be able to bring myself to, because Sorkin + female protagonist = probably enraging, but I read Bloom’s book last year — tl;dr: I wouldn’t pay for the book, but it’s a v. readable afternoon’s worth if you can snag it from the library — and this is just the third-person deep dive I wanted into the story.
Related: let’s know each other on Goodreads! Follow my laborious progress through Robert Caro’s LBJ book percentage point by stubbornly won percentage point, hee. (But also sigh.)
Aight, let’s wrap up my contemporary coverage of The Jinx with my piece on that legendary finale — and why I thought it was legendary without the bathroom mutterance, which I didn’t think was quite the nail in Durst’s coffin everyone else seemed to, and I still don’t.
The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst is a hall-of-fame piece of documentary filmmaking. Not, in fact, because of the money quote that lit up Twitter last night; as stranger-than-fiction = fucking brilliant as it is that Bob Durst mutters, "Killed them all, of course" (moments after ripping a honky old-man fart, no less), that isn't documentarian craft, quite. That's savvy subject selection: a guy who thinks he's smarter than everybody else, but who apparently longs to get caught, viz. shoplifting a hoagie from Wegman's. And even folks who make movies for a living sometimes forget the mic pack doesn't automatically shut down in the shitter.
As well, I have trouble calling that phrasing an admission. What he says earlier in that sequence is more damning, in my opinion -- "There it is. You're caught." is the part I wrote down -- but I suspect that, if Durst had had a camera on him at the time, he'd have put an eye-roll between "What did I do?" and "Killed them all, of course" indicating that, while he can see that that's the conclusion drawn, it's not the correct one.
And of course it is the correct conclusion -- but Durst's stream (hee) of consciousness in the bathroom isn't what takes The Jinx from above-average true-crime project to classic. The fortuitously timed arrest of Durst in Louisiana on the eve of the series finale isn't either, although I did wonder whether Jarecki and Smerling's corporate tax return had a line item for a gross of sacrificial goats.
It's that The Jinx isn't only about Bob Durst, or about Jarecki and Smerling's relationship with Durst, but about documentaries themselves. What do we expect from documentaries, particularly those concerned with murder cases? Do we want "results" -- cases retried (The Thin Blue Line), innocents freed (the Paradise Lost films)? And what do the filmmakers themselves consider "results"? Jarecki talks early in the finale about getting "justice," whatever that is here, and gathering "more evidence"; according to a New York Times piece, he and Smerling struggled with what had become their role in the cases, trying to walk the line between recording events and influencing them, and opted to start sharing intel with authorities two years ago. But Jarecki's fairly transparent about how confronting Durst with the handwriting exemplars* will affect the film project, and how he interviews and interacts with Durst himself. At one point, he sarcastically gripes to the camera about Durst's "day when he feels like talking" volatility. His tendency to insert himself and/or The Filmmaking into the project didn't work for me consistently prior to the finale -- the two-shots of him with his notepad; the slo-mo re-enactments of the deaths of Susan Berman and Durst's mother -- but when the screen went black and that theremin started up, I actually wished the production had put itself more in the mix. Okay, Jarecki showily writing "start with softball questions" on his to-do list for the final sit-down is annoying.
* Just a quick note on the forensic graphologist himself: he's John Paul Osborn, a fourth-generation member of the first family of handwriting analysis. His great-grandfather, Albert S., identified Hauptmann as the author of the ransom notes in the Lindbergh case. It's not "bad" that the production didn't explicitly credential Osborn, but it did strike me as somewhat odd that they passed on the chance to mention another murder case that continues to obsess us. Maybe it's just an Easter egg for nerdolas like me and they didn't want to ruin the flow of the segment. Moving on!
But that last showdown, Jarecki's evident conflict about it socially and artistically (and, I think, some reservations about pissing off a guy who tends to get away with killing people, frail and vaguely ridiculous as he might seem now), raises such knotty and crucial questions about the tension between documentarian and subject, or between reporter and subject. Do you want to tell a good story, or do you want to do good? Is it unethical to befriend your source, or to pretend you have? Or does everyone understand that contract in 2015? Do you tell your source or subject the truth about how you feel about him/her, what you've found out, how you'll portray him/her? Or do you fudge that to get to the larger truth in the work?
It's this, I think, that classics of the true-crime genre -- Fatal Vision, In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song, The Staircase, Robert House's exhaustive Ripper investigation -- have in common. It's not the crimes themselves; it's not whether they're ever solved (or solved incorrectly). It's the understanding and the incorporation into the story that the capital-T Truth is elusive, that the truth about the truth-seekers may get ugly, that some minor chords don't resolve. "What really happened" is a noble aim, and a mirage at the same time. The best of the genre turns to its audience and sighs, "We can't ever really know."
I think we know what Bob Durst did, that he did it. The Jinx wisely goes to black at minute 39, not trying to get a bow around anything or fit it in a nutshell; the "why" we can't quite ever get to doesn't change the "what," which is that Durst killed at least three people and rightly assumed he'd get by with it. It's a frustrating series at times, self-regarding, occasionally slow; it's also smart about its subject, unbearably tense in its last chapter, and interested not just in getting a great story but in how the how of getting that story is a story of its own, one about all of us. — SDB, 3/16/15
Friday on Best Evidence: Paid subscribers get early access to my interview Dr. Marcia Chatelain on her excellent Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. And EVERYONE gets to use Ms. Howie’s Staying-Inside True-Crime Title Generator!
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