Love (Scams) In The Age Of COVID · Murder Among The Mormons
Plus new contrib Elizabeth Held on meta true-crime narratives
Murder Among The Mormons drops today on Netflix. Not sure who signed off on that weirdly stiff mid-century title, but the moniker is emblematic of the issues I had with the three-part docuseries on the so-called Salamander letter — namely, that at its heart it’s a forgery story, but the docuseries seems reluctant to engage with the “nerd” process that explains the murder part (and, to an extent, the Mormons part). From my review at Primetimer:
It's a reasonably complex case, but context is essential here. Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts's book Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders wasn't a dazzling prose experience, but it moved through all the background in an orderly way without being dull. The authors seemed to understand in a way MATM doesn't that people who choose to learn more about this story won't be scared off by discussions of ink analysis or LDS history — in fact it may be why we've tuned in in the first place.
MatM does have a couple of things to recommend it: expensive-looking and well crafted re-enactments, for one; interviewee Shannon Flynn, for another (he’s the first guy you see and a born storyteller). The case itself is really interesting. But it’s kind of like Pitch was: it doesn’t want to be about what it’s really about, because people think what it’s really about is boring, but then people who tuned in specifically for what it’s really about are like, “Um.”
If you give it a look and have that neither-fish-nor-fowl experience of it (or don’t!), let me know. — SDB
Always a pleasure to welcome a new contributor to the fold, and today Elizabeth Held is kicking off a series on “meta” true-crime properties — books, pods, and other media that put true crime at the center of their fictional narratives. Take it away, Elizabeth! — SDB
Novelist Denise Mina has a theory as to why true crime is so popular right now.
“I think why they’re going through a surge in popularity is because we live in uncertain times. True crime stories are compelling because they matter, have real world consequences, tend to be classed as a low art genre so anyone can enjoy them and have a valid opinion and also because there’s so much good stuff out there,” the writer, and true-crime enthusiast, told CrimeReads.
Mina’s 2019 novel, Conviction, is one of a growing number of fictional works depicting not just abductions and murders, but documentaries and podcasts about those crimes. These works explore the nature of the genre and our relationship to it.
Here are four meta mysteries and thrillers true crime fans will want to consider:
Conviction by Denise Mina
Scottish housewife Anna McLean turns to a true-crime podcast for a distraction after learning her husband is having an affair with her best friend. She’s shocked to realize the podcast is about the death of an acquaintance and that it documents parts of a life she’s worked to leave behind. Anna takes off, with her best friend’s ex-rocker husband, to solve the case herself.
There’s a lot for true-crime lovers to like about Conviction. Mina incorporates lengthy transcripts from “Death and the Dana,” the book’s podcast, into the text. It’s clear she’s a fan of the genre; the podcast excerpts have a pitch-perfect voice. Best Evidence readers will likely sympathize with Anna’s use of true-crime podcasts to escape her problems.
Mina also uses the multi-layered novel to comment on how storytelling techniques and narrative structure can influence the way we interpret books, podcasts and more. She shows how decisions are made to include — or cut — different aspects of a story when telling it, and the effects of those choices.
The mystery may be the weakest part of this book, hinging on a global conspiracy dating back to the Nazis. Fans of locked-door mysteries or traditional whodunnits might find it all to be a bit over the top, but many will enjoy this fast-paced, fun thriller.
The Holdout by Graham Moore
In 2009, Maya Seale served on the jury for the trial of the century, acquitting a Black man that everyone in the country believed was guilty of murdering a white 15-year-old heiress. Ten years later, when a true-crime docuseries brings the jury back together, Maya finds a juror she sparred with during the trial murdered in her hotel room, and becomes the police’s prime suspect.
Graham imagines what it would be like to serve on the jury that acquitted O.J. Simpson and then suddenly re-enter the world. In a story told from alternating perspectives, we see how jury duty affected the 12 men and women long after the trial ended. It’s a fascinating concept, and people who binged The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story will likely enjoy it.
Moore deftly combines the best elements of a legal thriller, examining how the defense and prosecution manipulate evidence and legal strategies, with aspects of locked-room mystery, as each of the jurors slowly reveals long-held secrets that may have contributed to the murder. The Holdout also offers readers the chance to solve two puzzles — the murder of the juror, and the original crime from the trial.
While the true-crime docuseries is simply a plot device to bring all the jurors, separated for a decade, back together again, The Holdout does explore the role media plays in our criminal justice system. Moore focuses more on cable news than true-crime media, but the discussion is still relevant for true-crime fans.
If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier
After Sera’s favorite true-crime podcast host, Rachel, suddenly vanishes, Sera decides to use the skills she’s learned from previous episodes to find her. Sera quickly gets a job on the ranch Rachel’s parents run in a small rural California town, where she learns Rachel is not the first local woman to disappear.
If I Disappear, Brazier’s debut, blends the heady, atmospheric setting of gothic novels with the twists and turns of a great thriller. The ranch grows increasingly claustrophobic to Sera, and to readers, as it becomes clear she is always watched. The sense of unease grows and finally climaxes in a wild twist in the book’s last three pages.
Brazier thanks the hosts of Crime Junkie and My Favorite Murder in the book’s acknowledgments, and her love for the genre shines through the novel. Each chapter opens with a snippet of Rachel’s podcast. Large portions of it are written in the second person, with Sera narrating her actions to Rachel, imitating the intimate style of many true-crime podcasts.
Interspersed between the red herrings and revelations is an exploration of why true crime is so popular among women, and a discussion of how the genre portrays women who disappear, making it an excellent read for fans of Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe and Emma Eisenberg’s Third Rainbow Girl.
Every Last Fear by Alex Finlay
NYU student Matt Pine’s parents and siblings were found dead while on spring break in Mexico. While the Mexican authorities insist the deaths were a tragic accident, the FBI isn’t so sure. Further complicating matters — the Pines were featured in a viral documentary that suggests Matt’s brother Danny had been wrongly convicted of murder.
Every Last Fear is simultaneously a murder mystery and an affecting story of a family struggling with a tragedy. It follows two timelines: Matt’s investigation into his family’s murder; and his father and sister’s investigation into his brother’s conviction, prior to their deaths. Scattered throughout the novel are excerpts from the documentary that put the Pines on the map. These transcripts both advance the plot and help us understand the Pines’ complex family dynamics.
Finlay impressively incorporates family secrets, political intrigue and an international money laundering scheme into Every Last Fear, without ever feeling like he’s trying to do too much. It’s a laudable feat for a first-time author.
True-crime fans will likely be particularly interested in the inclusion of the documentarians, a married couple named Judy and Ira, as characters in Every Last Fear. The pair is working on a follow-up to their viral film, after receiving criticism that the first installment focused too much on the alleged murderer and not enough on its victim. It’s a feeling that will ring true for many true-crime fans, who often find themselves caught up in investigative and legal procedures rather than the victims. — Elizabeth Held
Elizabeth Held is a writer in Washington, D.C. She writes a weekly book recommendation newsletter.
Paid subscriptions help us commission fine work like this! Not everyone’s feeling spendy at tax time, and we get it, but if you’ve got $5 a month to throw in, that helps us pay our contributors…
…and you’ll get a full archive of reviews just for paid readers. And speaking of bonus reviews, it’s time to pick what I’m watching/listening to for March. Last day to vote! Avenge Dr. Phil*! — SDB
*just kidding, he’s fine; also I kind of hate him
I don’t remember how I found SocialCatfish.com’s omnibus on online love scams during the COVID era, but at first, it seemed like a perfect solution to the problem of explaining to a boomer relative what catfishing even is. Of course, Social Catfish is running some game of its own; it’s “an online dating investigation service” that runs “in depth checks using our own proprietary online tools to verify things like images, social profiles, phone numbers, emails, jobs and a lot more to make sure that you have the most information about the person that you've met online.”
The piece I linked to runs down everything from which states have the most catfishing victims (and fewest; way to keep it frosty, Vermont); to an interview with a “Nigerian romance scammer” who shares secrets of the “bait” playbook; to a love-scam victim who now lives “in a tent” thanks to the predations of a catfisher. The page also tries to rationalize its own marketing-forward existence with predictions about increases in online love scams thanks to a year of isolation, and the fact that many of a catfisher’s go-to excuses about never meeting in person or needing money for medical emergencies will play way better than they did in the Before Time. But it’s mostly no-duh content for anyone who’s seen even half an episode of Catfish.
And its methods are very problematic. The antiquated label for the scam, plus some graphics that read as visual dog-whistling, may be cynically leveraging ingrained bias to drum up fear, and by extension business, for Social Catfish. I understand still labeling the advance-fee scam “Nigerian,” because its best-known iteration years ago was, per Wikipedia, rooted in “the apparently comical, almost ludicrous nature of the promise of West African riches from a Nigerian prince.” Those of us who have had email since right after Al Gore invented it definitely remember getting like four of these a day. But 1) just call it “the advance-fee love scam” instead, with a parenthetical about its being known in the past as “the Nigerian Prince or the Spanish Prisoner”; and 2) don’t pair it with ginned-up graphics of Black men with reddened eyes, which bring to mind Time magazine’s (alleged? I can’t remember if the mag admitted to it) alteration of OJ Simpson’s mug shot. It plays into bias — unnecessarily — and it’s gross. — SDB
Last week on Twitter, the Investigation Discovery account was recommending content based on star sign.
It’s Pisces season, and ID’s Twitter rec for you guys was Unsolved Mysteries. Had I shown up on time — I was due March 1 — I would also have drawn UM, but I refused to leave until March 22, so ID suggested Diabolical.
Calculating. Cunning. Cold as ice. In Diabolical, a new gripping ten-episode series on Investigation Discovery, these shockingly devious masterminds use their wits and wiles to manipulate us, seduce us and try to get away with murder.
…Hmm. Yeah: no thanks. And I kind of feel like Aries should have drawn a show about white-collar criminals, since we’re so BOSS-y? But maybe that’s not something Discovery+ has to hand in their library. What did y’all get for your signs? How do you feel about it? And should I reconsider ID’s rec for me? — SDB
Thursday on Best Evidence: Soccer drama and health-care serial killers.