Serial · Law & Disorder

It’s Boxing Day, so we’re UN-boxing some archival material from — my review of Serial S1 from five years ago (…doesn’t it seem like that podcast debuted much longer ago? like it’s just always been?), and a look back at John Douglas’s Law & Disorder.

Find any good books or docs under the tree? Let us know what you’re reading (or, if you’re working today, surreptitiously listening to). I’m in the middle of Say Nothing, and then I’ll be looking up a The First 48 episode at a reader’s request! You can request reviews (or just vent about Erin Moriarty’s turtlenecks) by dialing 919-75-CRIME.


The crime

"On January 13, 1999, Adnan Syed was a hurt and vengeful ex-boyfriend who carried out a premeditated murder. Or he was a bewildered bystander, framed for a crime he could never have committed." - Serial's website landing page.

The story
I mentioned this in a piece I wrote for Previously.TV about an upcoming episode of Starz's The Missing, because I think about it a lot, writing and ruminating as I do for a living on narratives generally (film, TV, books) and specifically about true-crime stories here. "This" is a note from John Douglas in The Cases That Haunt Us about a piece of evidence, I believe in the JonBenet Ramsey investigation (I can't seem to find the specific reference in the text; I believe it's the coroner's conclusion as to when she might have eaten some pineapple), that didn't fit with various timelines of the crime. If it had fit, it might have proved something, but as it was, it was evidence -- but not evidence of anything. Douglas, the founder of the FBI's profiling program, shrugs it off, as he says experienced investigators learn to in murder cases, because you always have a handful of bits and bobs that don't go anywhere.

That Westword came out with a long story yesterday about Fleet and Priscilla White, figures "close to" the JonBenet case who have only now agreed to speak directly with the press about what they observed, might have brought that comment from John Douglas to my mind vis-a-vis Serial, but I feel like it's been running under the story like a ticker since I started listening to the podcast a few weeks ago. So much has already been written about whether the story "needs" an ending to be worthwhile that I won't add to the chorus -- well, fine: of course it doesn't -- but whatever your feeling about the end of Serial, both the show and its finale get at something about true crime as a genre, and why it attracts us in all its media.

Those of you who have already read my grand unifying theory of true-crime and the uses of narrative can skip over this next bit, but in a nutshell, it's my belief that we -- I, at least -- read true crime, watch Forensic Files and Dateline, watch The Imposter, in order to exercise some control over a terrifying uncontrollable variable. If we read every book about counterfeiting, we won't get stuck with funny money; if we read every book about identity thieves, we won't get conned; if we watch every Unsolved Mysteries or 20/20 or miniseries about Ted Bundy, we won't get raped and murdered and left in the snow alone for three months until the spring thaw. Stories in all their forms, novels and songs and Bollywood dance joints and non-fiction reporting of 15-year-old murders, comfort us, and they have different ways of doing that, sometimes escape, sometimes holding up a mirror; fictional tales, of course, let us curate life, tie up loose ends, get the endings we want, unambiguous and just.

True crime isn't about that...but part of us hopes it is. Wrongful convictions that became huge, almost unturnable ships (Paradise Lost); ancient cases whose best witnesses wouldn't talk and went to the chair (the Lindbergh kidnapping); old-ish murders with lots of weird misstatements and missing facts and more doubt than "reasonable," and a dead defense attorney who probably fucked up. You dive into cases like that, or JFK conspiracy theories, or Jack The Ripper, or Zodiac, knowing it can't be solved but having to believe that it can, or that maybe you can. That we can in fact know everything about a situation or another person.

Serial is well reported, well constructed, lucid, transparent, paced intelligently, honest about its methods and construction. It's done well, is part of why we all dived into it headfirst. Most of why. But part of why is the why that's always there in the genre, a why a lot of people don't think about because true crime is this trashy stupid cousin, seated even further down the crooked kids' tables of genre lit and non-fiction TV than bodice-rippers and Kardashians, and nobody wants to consume it, or admits to consuming it, or understands that for every Fatal Sleaze: The Bloody Murder Story With Pictures, there's an In Cold Blood. (Okay, not for every ONE. For every 16-18, probably, but still.)

And the why does have an answer -- the world is a dangerous place full of bad, angry, lying people stronger than you are -- but when a young, sweet girl with a new boyfriend is killed, we want to get our arms around it and we don't want to touch it. The best work in the genre lets us touch it. Serial let us touch it. That's the only answer you get, sometimes.

...Oh, who do I think did it? For sure? I don't know for sure. If I had to pick one guy: Jay. Jay knew where the car was. Jay knew a lot of things for sure. — SDB, 12/18/14

The crime

Various notorious miscarriages of justice/false accusations of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The story

I have read Douglas and Olshaker's The Cases That Haunt Us…I don't know, I've lost count. Dozens of times. TCTHU, which is fifteen-odd years old as of this writing, holds up for me in part because of the subject matter: notorious crimes that remain unsolved, and remain notorious in part because they remain unsolved. Something about Jack the Ripper, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Laurie Bembenek and others Douglas reviews endures, that poppyseed-at-the-gumline combination of "we'll never know" and "we must know."

But part of it is the writing. I don't know what Douglas's prose is like without Olshaker's collaboration, and my sense from Law & Disorder is that, after many years working together on Douglas's books, Olshaker is now on more of a partner footing with Douglas as far as research and the guiding pitches. But in The Cases That Haunt Us, the copy is direct and informative, never too dry, flavorful and evocative but not purple. The authors give you a solid background in, and sense of the time and place of, the cases they discuss.

It's also the only Douglas book I've read, and I've read a handful of others, in which Douglas's turgid ego isn't crowding the reader out of every page, and unfortunately Olshaker has not done nearly the job of reining in Douglas's self-aggrandizement that he did in TCTHU. Douglas has reason to think well of himself and his accomplishments; he's a legend. But what becomes a legend most is not so much pointing out continually that he is a legend, and why. Exhibit A, as it were: Law & Disorder's subtitle, The Legendary FBI Profiler's Relentless Pursuit Of Justice. I mean, it isn't inaccurate, but it isn't a very good look, either, particularly not paired with a cover photo of Douglas, posed in front of a Crown Vic on a country road, glaring legendaciously into the camera. The other thing is, many if not most readers who would seek Law & Disorder out do so because they already know Douglas's résumé. Maybe stop selling for a sec?

All that said, and despite a sequence in which Damien Echols's wife lavishes him with praise for moving the ball in the West Memphis Three case -- one which is ironically reminiscent of a passage Douglas points to in TCTHU from Jafsie's book about his role in the Lindbergh case, in which Anne Lindbergh is comforted by John Condon's treacly entreaties and which Douglas dismisses as flatulent vainglory, like, wonder why that bothered Very Special Agent Douglas so much? -- the book is a reasonably interesting read. I continue to find his rock-ribbed defense of the Ramseys odd, and that he won't spend even a couple of grafs talking through why, as he claims, it can't be Burke who killed JonBenét seems like a missed opportunity. He repeats a few stories from past books that worked fine once but don't show as well in the repetition. And the typographical decision to render quotes in italics in-graf, instead of just using quotation marks, is distracting and makes the book look amateurish physically.

But it had never occurred to me that William Heirens didn't commit the murders he died serving time for, so that part is worthwhile -- and if you've seen the Frontline on Cameron Todd Willingham, Douglas and Olshaker's take may seem redundant, but it's still solid reading, as is their somewhat overly meticulous but also satisfyingly disgusted take on the Knox/Sollecito debacle. If you see Law & Disorder at the airport, grab it; it's a good plane read, and you'll figure out pretty quickly when Douglas is about to take a flight of self-praiseful fancy and allow you to jump ahead a few pages. But don't pay full hardcover price. — SDB, 4/28/17

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