Yellow Bird · Moment of Truth · Lifetime's Summer of Secrets

Plus, why we don't center the tellers' experiences of bank robbery, Los Clemente, and more

Back to Susan’s overview of Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award nominees, as we assess whether the 2021 nominees for Best Fact Crime are worth adding to your reading list.

We’ll continue our look at the nominees with Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch.

In February 2012, an oil worker named Kristopher Clarke (KC) went missing from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. At the time, the reservation was the epicenter of an oil boom that drew scores of non-native workers (like KC, a 27-year-old white man from Washington State) to the area.

While Yellow Bird is ostensibly about KC’s disappearance, the whodunit is never really a question. Instead, the book is a character study of Lissa Yellow Bird, a former convict turned advocate/pro-bono investigator and member of the Three Affiliated Tribes — Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. It’s also the story of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and the displacement of its people over generations; the legacy and scars of colonialism; and the culture of lawlessness wrought by hydraulic fracking of the Bakken oil fields.

Yellow Bird is the product of a years-long relationship between author and subject, who first meet when a local journalist tells Sierra Crane Murdoch (who had spent time reporting on how the oil boom was transforming the native communities of western North Dakota, including escalating crime rates) that there’s someone she needs to meet. At first offering assistance to KC’s mother in navigating the complexities (geographic, legal, and political) of the reservation, Lissa throws herself into the case as she strives to reconnect with her own children and demonstrate to her extended family that she’s taking sobriety seriously.

Lissa brings a high level of intensity to her investigation, employing catfishing and guerrilla-like tactics to shake loose information from those closest to the main suspect in KC’s disappearance (his employer, James Henrikson). She also utilizes her family connections to Tribal Chairman (and gatekeeper to the reservation for the many oil-related interests clamoring for access) Tex Hall to untangle the complex business and often criminal relationships that underpin oil extraction and led to KC’s disappearance. Crimes committed by non-Indians on Fort Berthold during the boom were a low priority for law enforcement, so Lissa’s investigation really does feel like a one-woman crusade.

Eventually there is resolution in the case, due in no small part to Lissa’s doggedness, but it sort of feels secondary to the questions at the core of Yellow Bird: What drives Lissa to dive into investigations of missing strangers? How much of it is an attempt to atone for past mistakes? What’s behind her need to share and even amplify other people’s pain? Crane Murdoch comes to some of her own conclusions, but always seems cautious about not elevating herself over the subjects (Lissa and her family) she’s embedded with.

Ultimately, KC’s case is a stand-in for the death and suffering brought by the oil boom and the myth of the saving power of wealth. The violence of colonialism and the shame it imprints is never far from the surface. Yellow Bird is an engaging, fascinating, and complicated story — much like its titular protagonist. — Susan Howard

Want to hear about all of the nominated books directly from the writers? The Raven Book Store is hosting what looks to be a very interesting virtual event tomorrow at 9pm ET/8pm CT featuring all five of the nominated Best Fact Crime authors!

Eve’s incantation worked: I’ll be reviewing the Fatal Voyage podcast as April’s bonus review. I had forgotten, somehow, that this franchise also addressed the death of JFK Jr., but I will only be contending with the 12 (!) episodes on Natalie Wood’s mysterious demise. In the meantime, you can see what I thought of a project that went the opposite direction and tried to tell Wood’s life story without her death; or, if you don’t already, you can grab a paid subscription, because only those folks get the bonus reviews.

Lifetime has released its “Summer of Secrets” original-movie slate for the warm-weather months. Once again, I find myself admiring the broadness of the theme, and the blunt force (if you’ll excuse the term) of the network’s titling conventions:

Gone Mom, starring Annabeth Gish and Warren Christie, will be the first Lifetime original film of the Summer of Secrets slate. The following day will see Jana Kramer take center stage in Soccer Mom Madam.

The following week Left for Dead: The Ashley Reeves Story and Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer make their Lifetime debuts. Secrets of a Marine’s Wife and Doomsday Mom follow the next week.

You can fill up your calendar starting Memorial Day weekend with the full slate at the link above; “highlights” include the aforementioned Gone Mom; Julie Benz of Dexter as the aforementioned Gold Digger; Jennie “Kelly Taylor” Garth as Ashley Reeves’s mother, Michelle; and the (relatively) star-studded Doomsday Mom, a Lori Vallow/Chad Daybell docudrama featuring Marc Blucas as Daybell, as well as Linda Purl and Patrick Duffy. All of these sound mildly interesting AND mildly terrible, but that’s the thing about this genre of Lifetime product: while it’s neither good nor so bad it’s good, it’s ultimately very predictable, and you know more or less what kind of “mildly” something you’re in for… — SDB

…unlike this baffler that was announced last week:

Elisabeth Röhm (American Hustle, Joy) and Malik Yoba (New York Undercover, Designated Survivor) have teamed with veteran reality TV executives Dorothy Toran (The Real Housewives of New Jersey) and Leslie D. Farrell’s Lauren Grace Media on a true-crime docuseries.

Created by Röhm and Yoba, the project, which is in development, explores how racial and socioeconomic disparities influence criminal investigations and how justice is served. Specific cases are not being revealed.

The Deadline piece adds this note from Toran: “‘They both have such an incredible commitment and passion for having the difficult conversations required to help combat the inequalities so many disadvantaged communities face.’”

I meaaaaan…look: I respect that something is being attempted here, and I also respect that Röhm is trying to move into a creative space over the last few years that doesn’t lean quite so heavily on her thespian “abilities.” I’m just struggling to figure out what she brings here — because as far as directing goes, it’s a fairly long leap from “based on a true story” Lifetime fare to a docuseries, is one thing. The other thing is that, if her value-add is in front of the camera, that…isn’t, so much, in my experience. Yoba, although he’s also moved into directing of late, was also an actor, and a quite good one…I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like an actor known for being wooden is the best fit for sensitive material.

But then, there’s a lot I don’t know, and this is a story that needs telling and retelling — of course I don’t want this to turn out a complete cringe-fest, but on paper, right now, that’s how it’s looking to me. Please feel free to enlighten me in the other direction in the comments! — SDB

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Got a quiet day at work? Here’s some longread help to pass the time:

  • Vulture’s profile of Jim and Tim Clemente from last month. If you skipped this one because you sensed some copaganda-fluffing, you must have also skipped the byline — it’s Rachel Monroe, who isn’t about to let law enforcement spoon-feed her rationalizations for monetizing traffic stops.

  • Texas Monthly dug into Lydell Grant’s exoneration quest in their January 2021 issue. It’s one of those “oh great, the ruling went the wrongfully convicted’s way ohhhhh hold on there’s like still 37 grafs left.” Here’s reporter Michael Hall quoting TX Innocence Project’s Mike Ware, who is exercised: “Ware said he had never seen anything like it. ‘The trial judge, DA, and police chief—each of them says he’s innocent. All of a sudden, the judges are ignoring DNA, questioning its validity as a science, and they want the trial court to get the witnesses to recant. It’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen. It makes no sense.’” Well, it does make “sense”…it’s racist CYA. That’s the “sense.” Anyway, Hall does a great job taking readers through a complex timeline and testing regime; you can read the piece here.

  • The Intercept asked what becomes of the tellers in a bank heist story. Here’s the real-life bank teller from Tom Holland starrer Cherry, which was based on a true tale, putting a VERY fine point on it in her remarks to The Intercept’s Matt Gallagher: “In the film, she’s referred to as Vanessa. In real life, her name is Rosa Foster, and she was pregnant at the time of the robbery. Until I contacted her last month, she had no idea that her story was no longer her own. Her role must’ve complicated the process of turning the events at the bank into one fit for public consumption and profit. So over time and interpretations, she was pretty much removed from it.

    ‘He has Spider-Man portraying him,’ Foster told me. ‘Pardon me for saying this, but what the fuck?’” I must confess to treating bank robberies in which nobody died too lightly my own self, in the past; our culture wants us to focus on the aspirational Danny Ocean-esque pizzazz of the thieves, not on the terrified civilians heisters often leave in their wakes. (Back in the day when I lived in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood, I could give you two grafs with my eyes closed on the Santander bank that got robbed twice in three weeks, by the same dude, WHO WAS NOT WEARING A DISGUISE OF ANY SORT. Like, we called that bank “Playskool’s My First Holdup” because apparently any moron could do it…repeatedly. I still have a LOT of questions about that guy (and can’t seem to find links to the story; that bank has been robbed again in the interim, but it was after I moved…it’s near a subway, Prospect Park, and Green-Wood Cemetery, so its attractiveness to stick-up artists isn’t surprising). …ANY-way: the linked piece is a compelling read, and puts me in mind of DB Cooper-flight attendant Tina Macklow, and the way her feelings and trauma are seldom at the center of that story.

  • The East Bay Times’s Stuart Miller spoke to the director of Moment of Truth, IMDbTV’s new documentary on the murder of James Jordan, Michael’s father, which premiered last Friday. I remember thinking during The Last Dance that I wanted to track down a longread on the case — but then saw that this was coming down the pike, and put a pin in it. The interview with Matthew Perniciaro gets into, among other things, why Perniciaro spent so much time on the flamboyantly extensive corruption within the Robeson County, NC sheriff’s department. Anyone watched/watching this one? Does Perniciaro’s case for a wrongful conviction hold water? Give us your capsule reviews. — SDB

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Tuesday on Best Evidence: Not sure why this Charles “The Serpent” Sobhraj project keeps hot-potatoing between me and Eve, but here’s me winging it westward.

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