“Serial,” Urgency, and “A Death in Belmont”

January 25, 2015   •   By Aimee Liu

“OH, IT’S SOOOOO GOOD!” All last fall I kept hearing these four words, delivered with the same exact inflection, whenever my friends started talking about the breakout podcast Serial. Never the earliest of adapters, I was clueless. First I dated myself by asking if this Serial was some new iteration of the classic 1977 Marin County satire by Cyra McFadden. When told it was about a murder, I assumed it was a scripted mystery — like episodic television. Wrong again.

When I finally found the podcast app on my phone and figured out how to download the first installment, I was bewildered by host Sarah Koenig’s announcement, “For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out […] where a high school kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999.”

“It’s really hard to account for your time,” Koenig observed, then proceeded to ask several seemingly random teenagers to remember what they’d done on a day six weeks earlier. None of them could.

Okay, so memory is unreliable. But … three million listeners were hooked on this show. Why?

I’d expected a uniquely mind-jangling plot and deeply complex characters. Instead I learned that Koenig was investigating — though she’s not a detective or even a crime reporter — a 15-year-old teen murder conviction. “On paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mash-up,” she promised. “Young lovers from different worlds, thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched […] a final act of murderous revenge.”

But … this wasn’t even a cold case. Back in 2000 a Baltimore jury took just two hours to convict 17-year-old Adnan Syed of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. So what was it that had millions of listeners not just hooked but raving about Koenig’s documentary? How, in other words, had she given this story sufficient urgency to generate all this new interest?

With that question in mind, as I got deeper into the podcast I couldn’t help but compare it to Sebastian Junger’s A Death in Belmont (Norton, 2006), about a murder and conviction that occurred in the 1960s. In Junger’s case, virtually all the principal players had died long before he began writing, but he did have a couple of riveting plot elements. The star villain lurking in the background of Junger’s narrative is the Boston Strangler, who raped then murdered 13 women with their own silk stockings. And the killing of an elderly housewife, Bessie Goldberg, for which an African-American day laborer named Roy Smith was convicted, seemed to fit the Strangler’s pattern exactly. But Smith had been in prison when the other murders occurred, and another day laborer, Albert DeSalvo, was eventually convicted in those cases. Here’s the lynchpin of A Death in Belmont: DeSalvo worked for Junger’s own family on the same day and in the same neighborhood where Bessie Goldberg was killed. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz observed when he reviewed the book for The New York Times:

To raise the stakes even further, Junger tells us, in his mother's words, about the day, before the Goldberg murder, when DeSalvo was alone with his mother in the Junger home: […] “He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotize me. As if by sheer force of will he could draw me down into that basement.”

Stakes, as every storyteller knows, play a crucial role in narrative urgency. Listeners and readers need to feel pretty quickly that something meaningful and fateful is at stake, or else they’ll lose interest — and loss of interest is a sure sign that urgency is flagging. But as Dershowitz suggests, it’s not enough just to lay out compelling stakes, such as personal proximity to a suspected serial killer. The rules of drama demand that these stakes be raised, by, for instance, a hypnotic invitation from said killer to join him alone in the basement. Junger raises his stakes early in his book, so we understand and share his personal curiosity about whether DeSalvo was Goldberg’s real killer — and would have been his mother’s had she succumbed to his invitation.

So what’s at stake for Sarah Koenig in the case of Adnan Syed? As she puts it, “The best I can explain is, this is the one that came to me.” Pretty wimpy when compared with the Boston Strangler leering up from the basement at your mom. On the other hand, how many of us can truly identify with the threat of a serial killer in our childhood home? The grabbing sensationalism of Junger’s hook, as well as its antiquity, actually build in a certain distance for the reader, while Koenig’s apologetic shrug tends to glue us to her persona. She freely admits she’s not a private investigator, but “way back when” she used to write for The Baltimore Sun, she’d written some stories “about a well-known defense attorney […] who’d been disbarred for mishandling client money.” Then, a year ago, out of the blue, Koenig got a call about a case this attorney might have thrown in hopes of getting more money to handle the appeal. The defense attorney was now dead, but her 17-year-old client had turned into a 31-year-old man doing life for a murder the caller said he didn’t commit.

We learn all this in the first six minutes of Episode 1 — along with the reminder that remembering is hard. Sure, Koenig once wrote for a newspaper, but she has no special investigative skills, doesn’t even pretend to have any authority in this case. She just picked up the phone and got pulled into some kid’s life-and-death story. She could be anybody. She could be us. What would we do? What if Adnan really is innocent, and we could help set him free? Unlike Junger’s investigation, Koenig’s theoretically could change fate for a man who’s still very much alive, and this immediate fatefulness is what ignites the podcast’s core urgency. What should Sarah do? What will she do? As novelist Anthony Doerr recently remarked about Serial, “It is the journalist’s implication in the narrative that compels me — the storyteller has become part of the story.” And while Junger was part of his story’s past, Koenig is part of her story’s potential. In this sense, though she has no personal stake in his guilt or innocence, she does play directly into the stakes for Adnan. And so, vicariously, do we.

Koenig’s “implication” further helps us to believe in her story. Her seeming candor and straightforward delivery convinced me not only that this is a real and compelling case, but also that she actually is committed to ferreting out the truth. Crucially, she admits her uncertainty. In every episode, often many times per episode, she confesses frustration, suspicion, hope, disappointment, confusion over the facts of the case, which keep shape-shifting before our very ears as Koenig and her team unearth new pieces of evidence or interview one more witness for the very first time.

Ironically, Junger’s greater historical stake in his story makes him less reliable than Koenig as a narrator. Junger clearly believed that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler and Bessie Goldberg’s murderer; if he found Roy Smith to be guilty, much of the spell of his mother’s hypnotic encounter with DeSalvo would dissolve. So he couldn’t be entirely forthright, for example, in reporting the conclusions of a homicide prosecutor who “was asked to evaluate” the file against Smith and concluded that he was innocent. “As a lawyer,” Dershowitz remarks, “I always become suspicious when I see a good writer using the passive voice.” But if Junger had admitted that he himself paid for the evaluation, we might suspect that the prosecutor had shaded his opinion to suit his client’s expectations.

In Serial, Koenig faces no such impediments. She freely admits to hiring Jim Trainum, a former homicide detective, to review Adnan’s case, and Trainum does not conclude that Adnan is innocent — or guilty. Instead he surprises her with the opinion that the detectives were cautious and methodical in this case, producing an investigation that was “better than average.” He also expresses concern over inconsistencies in the evidence. An expert in false witness statements, Trainum cautions Koenig that “people tend to bend their memories to what they think the police want to hear.” So. The best he can offer are conflicting doubts.

At the outset, Koenig makes it clear that she, too, harbors doubts about both Adnan’s guilt and his innocence. And those double-barreled doubts are actually what keep the urgency of the story alive. The jurors she contacts insist that they’re still sure of Adnan’s guilt, and Adnan himself has neither an alibi nor an alternate explanation for Hae’s death. Still, the legal case against him consisted almost exclusively of one man’s testimony. His former friend Jay maintained that he’d helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. Jay also led police to Hae’s car several weeks after the murder. And he supplied the motive, claiming that Adnan strangled her because she’d broken up with him. Absent more forensic evidence, such as DNA — which was never tested — the story turns on which characters we believe. And here’s where character complexity comes into play.

Jay’s friends compare him to Dennis Rodman, outlandish in some ways and tough to pin down — a lacrosse-playing drug dealer one year older than the other actors in this story; a petty liar, but nonviolent. He’s polite when Koenig confronts him, and he stands by his testimony.

Adnan is of Pakistani descent and a practicing Muslim. Hae Min Lee was the daughter of Korean immigrants. Both Hae and Adnan were forbidden to date and so hid their relationship from their families. This defiance and secrecy was used against Adnan at trial. Hence Koenig’s “Shakespearean mash-up” remark.

But Adnan was also homecoming prince. Hae was manager of the school swim team. Both were good students, and popular. So this case is both compellingly exotic and as familiar as teenagers passing notes in class or buying weed after school. And that is precisely what gives the story its dramatic tension. As Aristotle explained in Poetics, a murder is much more likely to excite our horror and pity if it occurs between characters “who are near or dear to one another” than between enemies or strangers. Could the affection of a seemingly normal — even admirable — teenage boy really have turned into murderous rage against his girlfriend? If so, how and why did that happen? Koenig probes and probes this question, asks Adnan, asks Hae’s closest friends, and not even the boyfriend who replaced him can remember Adnan ever getting exercised or being anything other than helpful and friendly toward Hae — or anyone. We start to put ourselves in Adnan’s position, wonder if we might ever snap in a jealous fit of rage. The magic of tragedy is that it compels us to question our own behavior.

To reinforce this effect, most of the voices we hear in Serial, including Adnan’s, sound like average American kids. The kind of kids who bend the rules occasionally — the kind of kids we once were, perhaps — but not the kind who kill each other. So how did one of these ordinary kids wind up dead and another in prison for murdering her? Perhaps Adnan Syed really is a sociopath with a Jekyll and Hyde personality, but if so, wouldn’t his Mr. Hyde side have shown itself at some point to someone other than Jay and Hae? The more contradictory the evidence, the more we, like Koenig, feel an urgent need to gather more facts.

By comparison, A Death in Belmont quickly runs low on dramatic tension. There is a bit of ethnic mash-up here, too, as Junger explores the violent and impoverished Italian-American boyhood of DeSalvo and speculates on the racial prejudice that may have contributed to Smith’s conviction, but beyond Junger’s mother employing the likely Boston Strangler, all his characters were strangers to each other. DeSalvo didn’t know Smith, and neither he nor Smith had more than a passing acquaintance with Bessie Goldberg before she wound up dead. Junger crafts his narrative to bring each of these now-deceased characters to life and explores every available angle of the case, but his authorial relationship with Smith, DeSalvo, and Goldberg in print is no match for the web of relationships that underscore Koenig’s story — or for her own audible relationship with Adnan Syed.

Which brings up the intrinsic subject of medium. Much of the urgency that initially compelled listeners of Serial was generated by the podcast’s immediacy, and in this sense Koenig had a clear advantage over Junger. Listeners who tuned in to her story last fall heard it not months after it was written, as they would if Serial were a book, but as her investigation was actually unfolding. We heard her getting to know Adnan and his friends and foes more or less in real time. We heard their actual voices. And because the podcast was released in installments, with the fresh evidence that Koenig unearthed each week posted online for our perusal, we felt that we were actively participating in her obsession right alongside her. Suspense was unavoidable; we could not, as Junger’s readers might, skip to the final chapter.

It’s like watching a live high-wire act, as opposed to viewing it on tape. In Serial, the dramatic risk is implicit and visceral.

Of course, with this risk comes a potential downside. Urgency in a mystery requires constant seesawing between the attempt to make sense, and failure to make sense, with the need for answers functioning as a shifting fulcrum underneath the whole enterprise. In Serial, the immediacy of the storytelling ratchets up our need for answers, and that need only intensifies as Koenig keeps switching the balance of proof between guilt and innocence. Her frustration at the refusal of the evidence to deliver certainty mirrors our own — but because this is a serial with a scheduled conclusion, we pay closer and closer attention, trusting that some unexpected revelation will definitively tip the balance in the end.

This trust extends even to Adnan himself, who asks Koenig in the last episode with evident disbelief, “If you don’t mind my asking, you don’t really have no ending?”

To which she replies in a plaintive voice, “Do I have an ending? Mmmh?”

This is how fiction has conditioned us: the sense of urgency we enjoy in any narrative is predicated on faith that the story’s finale will deliver a satisfying conclusion — not all the answers we hope for, perhaps, but enough for us at least to find meaning in our uncertainty. As Dershowitz says, “For the book to work, there must be a payoff.” Junger and Koenig both surely knew this when they launched their respective projects. They were staking a great deal on their investigative and journalistic skills, and perhaps the very elusiveness of proof was part of their calculation, since the most challenging mysteries tend to arouse the most urgent desire for answers. But when an author truly has no idea what the investigation will yield, the enterprise can turn into a game of narrative chicken, dodging and swerving around facts and fallacies with the very real risk of crashing.

Again, medium matters. Before the first copy of A Death in Belmont was published, both Junger and his editor had to know how it would end. He’d already written, “In some ways there is nothing less relevant than an old murder case.” And also, “I would never know for sure what had actually happened in the Goldberg house that day.” And also, “But maybe the truth isn’t even the most interesting thing about some stories […] maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true.” Maybe, but that’s certainly not the thing that pulled readers through Junger’s dissection of Roy Smith’s criminal and alcoholic history, or his analysis of serial killer behavior, or his scrutiny of DeSalvo’s insanity plea and the State’s failure to link him to Bessie Goldberg’s murder. It’s not the payoff that Dershowitz has in mind.

“I think he is wrong,” Dershowitz writes. “Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth.” Junger’s failure to prove the actual truth, then, deflates what little urgency he was able to muster in his last chapters and leaves his readers feeling betrayed by the narrative. It’s reasonable to wonder, if Junger didn’t have an ending, why did he publish the book?

The same question doesn’t quite apply to Serial, though, regrettably, the first season has concluded with what seems a similar ending. Despite a deus ex machina twist in the last episode that offered the possibility of a conclusion that no one saw coming, the real-time limitations of the podcast deprived Koenig and her listeners of the satisfaction of knowing for certain whether Adnan was guilty or innocent. It is possible that her yearlong effort and the global attention the podcast garnered could yet play a meaningful role in freeing a wronged man, but the closest Koenig came to a verdict on air was her staunch declaration of reasonable doubt: “As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed. I have to acquit. Even if in my heart of hearts I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors.” And yet, “If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it.”

In Junger’s words, “Often the truth simply isn’t knowable — not, at least, in an absolute way.” But what is knowable, or at least palpable, in Serial is the impact of her quest for truth on Koenig herself. For unlike Junger, and unlike any author of fictional drama, Koenig exposes herself not in hindsight but in the present tense of every episode. As Doerr said, she’s implicated. And by the end we can hear in her voice the extent to which her own limitations have humbled her. She’s been dismayed by the realities of our criminal justice system. And perhaps most affecting, she has been confounded by the power that we all blithely ascribe to that most unreliable of witnesses: human memory. As she told us right in the beginning, “It’s really hard to account for your time.” And over the next 12 episodes, this apparent statement of the obvious acquired layers and layers of consequence. How can 12 jurors account for the two hours it took them to convict a 17-year-old kid of murder based purely on circumstantial evidence and one witness’s constantly changing account of his own time one January evening in 1999? How can the dozens of witnesses Koenig interviewed account for the irreconcilable contradictions among their absolutely certain memories? How can Koenig make sense of the months she invested in Adnan’s case? How can we account for the time we’ve spent listening — and the conclusions we’ve drawn?

We may not know for certain whether Adnan Syed is guilty or innocent, but if we’ve been listening carefully, we know a great deal more than we did at the outset about the fallibility of our own convictions. “As much as I want to be sure,” Koenig says, “I’m not.” And bundled in that modest admission is a most urgent lesson for us all.


Aimee Liu is a frequent contributor to LARB.