Assassins · Crime Scene · The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Plus murder houses and hip-hop lawsuits

The crime
In 2017, two young women in a Malaysian airport walked up to Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, placing their hands over his face and infecting him with the deadly nerve agent VX. The audacious plot behind a killing executed in broad daylight would lead to questions of who was responsible for Kim Jong-nam’s death, and what the repercussions to the world would be.

The story
Of all the grainy CCTV footage that has become part of the cultural landscape, there are few which hit practically every box in Late Capitalist Surveillance Dystopia Bingo like the shots of Đoàn Thị Hương minutes after poisoning Kim Jong-nam. She appears carefree, strolling triumphantly through the concourse wearing a white shirt that says LOL. It’s practically a William Gibson first draft that needs editing down for being too heavy-handed.

The new documentary Assassins prepares you to watch this young woman being radicalised by North Koreans into committing murder. By the next day Hương, along with the other woman in the airport, Siti Aisyah, would be arrested by the Malaysian police. But the story Aisyah and Hương would tell about how they ended up at the center of a major Asian political crisis was not what anyone expected.

While everyone in the resulting criminal trial would agree on the events that led to Kim Jong-nam’s death, the identity of the true assassins was up for debate. Was it the responsibility of the two young women who smeared nerve agent on his face? Or were they puppets in a criminal conspiracy with roots in a family feud and, improbably, a MTV prank show from the early ‘00s? During their trial, the accused women would claim that they were at the airport filming for YouTube, part of the wave of Jackass-inspired prank videos made in the hopes of social media virality.

Director Ryan White’s varied back catalogue (Ask Dr. Ruth, Serena) doesn’t make him the obvious choice for a story that covers international relations, Asian politics and culture, as well as the dark ops of intelligence services. But going up against the Catholic Church for Netflix’s blockbuster The Keepers must have given him a handle on finding cracks in institutional deception. That’s good, because Assassins is full of lies — from the deceptions of spies to omissions of truth by police, lawyers, and entire political regimes.

Because it’s juggling so many topics, from the macro view of North Korea’s nuclear threat to the micro view of the defendants, White has to choose where to direct focus. Most of his choices work, and he gets remarkable access to some of the people close to the eye of the storm. Sometimes it’s a little scattered, as in the montages of Kim Jong-un’s growing power. (Content warning: This means Trump rants.) But at best it resembles Bart Layton’s The Imposter, another story about muddied motives and identities, carefully designed to keep the viewer in suspense until the very end. — Margaret Howie


Is identifying unlicensed samples in hip-hop “snitching”? In a piece for Pitchfork from last month, Mosi Reeves says indie rap labels think it is. The battle between samplers and samplees goes back to sine qua non rap hit “Rapper’s Delight,” which ran afoul of Chic’s Nile Rodgers for nicking the bass line from “Good Times” — and while sampling has “receded” in recent years (possibly because it’s too expensive to do legally…and too hard to get away with extra-legally), “the lawsuits persist.”

Possibly giving aid and comfort to litigious creators: crowdsourced encyclopediae like WhoSampled. That site is essential for Mark And Sarah Talk About Songs research for me — albeit dangerous; I’m never able to get on and off the thing in under 15 minutes — but according to rap producers and label exec, WhoSampled and sites like it basically provide a treasure map “for any rightsholders out hunting for a lawsuit.”

It gets especially gross when the hunter is a corporate rights “administrator”:

In March 2020, the rightsholders of 10cc’s “The Worst Band in the World” sued over the late J Dilla’s “Workinonit,” a crucial track from his masterpiece Donuts, which samples the British pop-rock band’s cheeky 1974 single. The conspicuous timing, coming 14 years after the 2006 release of Donuts, may be related to the fact that the plaintiff is not a 10cc member or songwriter, but Music Sales Corporation, a company that acquired the right to administer the copyright for “The Worst Band in the World” in 2019. I contacted Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, former label manager for Stones Throw, which released Donuts, who declined to discuss the lawsuit in depth. But he offered an opinion: “Do I think that some unnamed corporation that purchased intellectual property from some other corporation should be shaking down J Dilla’s estate?” he asked rhetorically. “No.”

Later in the piece, WhoSampled’s head of content says that trawling it for violations is itself a violation of the site’s terms of service, but a determined lawyer for an estate — like James Brown’s, cited here — widely seen as a sample mine isn’t going to trouble herself with that distinction.

The article is a very solid overview of the “fraught dynamic between the DJs and producers flipping rare and obscure samples and the fans who want a peek at their crates” — it’s full of suggested reading, and you can hear Reeves digging into the history of sampling, and its attendant litigation, on Slate’s The Bridge podcast. — SDB


Joe Berlinger’s latest, Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, drops today on Netflix. It’s not a waste of time, and the overarching series concept has a lot of potential…but so did the first season, in terms of grappling with the role of “net detectives” in cold cases. “Ambivalent” is in fact a point of view; I’m just not sure even that is effectively done here, as I noted in my Primetimer review:

After journalist [Josh] Dean calls Lam's case, and others like it, "a hobby that becomes an obsession," Berlinger cuts to something else instead of digging into what's dangerous about that — that "hobby-izing" violent crime reduces it to a game, an entertainment. Berlinger may simply have run out of time to contemplate the ways social media can distort appearances and emotions, or maybe he didn't want to indict himself by condemning the true-crime genre as exploitative... but if you're going to give a self-described YouTuber as much or more screentime as a forensic psychologist, you need to have a firmer grasp of what that means to your narrative.

Dean has thought and written extensively on Lam and the Cecil; we’ve linked to it here before, and I link to his catalog on the case in the Primetimer piece. (Dean is the cousin of a close friend of mine whom I somehow don’t think I’ve ever hung out with, despite our having also been in dog-show press rooms at the same time ten years ago? In any event, his book Show Dog is an on-point BTS look at that world, if you’re looking for some literally fluffy reading.) — SDB


You know how we love to contemplate “murder houses” around here — what should become of them, whether we’d live in them — but I think we missed A&E Real Crime’s write-up from last April about “stigmatized properties.” On the one hand, it seems impossible that we wouldn’t have spotted it, but on the other hand, 1) I can’t find it in our archives, and 2) I’d remember hard numbers like the ones Adam Janos reports:

James E. Larsen, a professor of finance at Wright State University, tells A&E Real Crime that his 2001 study showed a cross-section of homes where homicides, suicides or hauntings were reported sold for 2.9 percent less than market value, and sat on the market for approximately 47 percent longer than average houses.

Of course, not all stigmas are worth the same financial downgrade: A house with a reported murder will likely take more of a price hit than one with a reported haunting.  According to some real estate appraisers, a well-publicized homicide can slash a home’s value by 15 to 25 percent.

Janos goes on to collect anecdotes about the Versace mansion in Florida; quirks of stig-prop laws from state to state; and the historical relationship of ignorance about HIV to statutes that remain on the books today.

I also found this, which is in terribly poor taste — but, to fellow New Yorkers, may have seemed extremely real. Like, “I’m surprised a Douglas Elliman splinter group hasn’t tried this for real” real. — SDB


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No thorns; no fighting over the nougat ones in the See’s box; just the true crime that’s worth your time. (Money tight? We get it. Sharing the love works too.) — SDB

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Speaking of Valentine’s Day, I’ve put together a reading list about the eponymous massacre after realizing I actually didn’t know much about it my own self. You can start with an explainer from TheScotsman.com (I often find that reading an overseas account of a notorious U.S.-gangland crime or case is a decidedly less sweaty prose experience).

Next stop: Las Vegas, where the Mob Museum maintains 300 bricks from the wall against which the executions — technically, these murders remain unsolved — were carried out. The crime-scene photos are genuinely unsettling IMO, but if you’d like to learn more, the MM points you to an interactive story on a separate site, complete with clever navigation.

Thus armed, you can dig into a conspiracy theory with this 2010 excerpt from Get Capone in Chicago Magazine. Good contemporary color, and if you’re interested in organized crime, the full-length book by Jonathan Eig is rocking a 3.8 on Goodreads, so maybe it’s worth a look; evidently Jon Stewart noted on The Daily Show that the subtitle should have been Everything You Know About Al Capone Is Wrong.

Everything we know about St. Valentine may also be wrong, FWIW. — SDB


Thursday on Best Evidence: Can’t stop won’t stop (talking about real-estate crime).


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