SPOILERS – Making A Murderer and True Crime Obsessions

Making-a-MurdererBefore I get stuck in, and in case the headline for this page doesn’t make it clear enough, this post contains spoilers from the entire series of Netflix’s Making A Murderer. While it is true crime and all the facts are in the public domain (not to mention updates appearing daily in newspapers, on TV, in blog posts and all over social media), I recommend you watch the entire show before reading what I have to say or searching out additional information. Read on, when you’re ready…

Oh, and if this looks too long (it is quite long), then just skip ahead and read the Sold A Story section, that’s the most important bit.

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

I, like millions of others, am currently obsessed by Making A Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series about Stephen Avery and Brendan Dassey, two men who have been convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach on the basis of – as contended by the show – at the very best dubious evidence. True crime, it seems, is big business as this follows hot on the heels of possibly the two biggest media obsessions of the past year – Serial and The Jinx.

All of these cases have one thing in common – they wouldn’t be acceptable to an audience if they were presented as fiction. In Serial and Making a Murderer this is, at least in part, because of the lack of closure. There’s no finality or even clarity, but where that would be frustrating in fiction (and it is here, though for very different reasons), in these cases that leads to only greater obsessive behaviour with viewers eager to fill in the gaps and allowing them to fill the role of Poirot or Columbo all by themselves.

Serial was the diametric opposite of the CSI school of television crime, with all the technical evidence only clouding things further, with experts disagreeing on how to interpret ‘evidence’, with the memories of those involved having changed over time. There was no one damning piece of evidence and, ultimately, room for every viewer to have their own theory as to what had happened.

The Jinx, with the unusual story of a multi-millionaire seemingly thinking he had got away with multiple murders being caught accidentally confessing off-camera but on mic, conforms in many ways with a more traditional crime story with a piece of ‘conclusive’ evidence revealed at the last moment and then the climactic ‘you got me’ confession, but the journey that Robert Durst takes along the way, including a period living as a woman in relative squalor, barely seems plausible and would surely be laughed out of a writers’ room.

And finally, Making A Murderer, which features so many seemingly staggering decisions made by people at so many levels that it’s almost impossible to understand how any of these events could have happened in a 21st century western society. The twists and turns along the way beggar belief.

But this is a significant part of their appeal. Truth, so the cliche goes, is stranger than fiction and all three cases demonstrate that all too clearly. People love these series because they provide stories that fiction can never give us, and because they start conversations. These aren’t “Who shot JR?” or “Who shot Mr Burns?”, these are real stories we may never have closure on, and certainly that won’t be decided by a group of writers in a room arguing a satisfactory resolution out.

MAKING AN OPINION

So at this point I’m going to venture my opinion on the Avery/Dassey case, but I’m also going to stress that I’m not saying this is the truth. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and, at this point, yours is just as valid as mine, so if you disagree with me I’m not going to debate you on it.

So I feel pretty confident that Avery and Dassey are not guilty, but not 100%. But regardless of that, I believe the process that put them away was so flawed and, according to jurors both released from the trial and who served on the final jury, those deciding Avery’s fate in particular were so wedded to their pre-trial view that the trial cannot have been considered fair. I think the case, as presented in the documentary, offers far more than reasonable doubt.

But there’s a key phrase there – “as presented by the documentary”. The documentary makers were embedded with the Avery family and undoubtedly presented a story from the point of view that Avery and Dassey were innocent. While it was inevitable that the prosecution would have a different point of view given the implied accusations against them, I think we need to be careful when dismiss their claims. The filmmakers got to choose what they put in and could easily exclude anything which went against their narrative.

There are two pieces of ‘evidence’ Ken Kratz has stated were left out of the series, both of which seem potentially important. The first is the sweat-based DNA of Stephen Avery that was allegedly found on the latch of the hood of the SUV, and the second are the repeated phone calls made to Halbach in the lead up to her murder. The former was not addressed at all in the documentary, and it seems that some kind of theory should be presented about its existence.

The documentary does, briefly, address the second of these, with an implication that an ex-boyfriend or obsessed acquaintance was responsible. It’s not clear whether the prosecution used the phone calls as part of their evidence but if they did it seems pretty damning that the filmmakers decided to exclude them from the narrative they present.

All that said, the key fob which appeared months later with no DNA beyond Avery is highly suspicious. The fact that, in his summary at the end of the case Kratz seems to imply this was indeed planted, is only more alarming. The fact that no blood was found anywhere, that there was seemingly another burn site (although this wasn’t really explored in the series either), and the tampering with Avery’s 1985 blood sample all point away from Avery.

Finally, some people have said that Avery didn’t prove he was innocent, but that is not how trials work. The burden is on the prosecution to prove what did happen. An innocent man, inconveniently, may not have alibis in place.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

But as I said, it’s important not to dismiss the claims of the prosecution. We have seen one side of the story and it’s very easy to just arbitrarily decide that anything which doesn’t conform with our own preconceived views isn’t relevant or can be dismissed. This is a case where we’re asked to believe that the police were responsible for framing an innocent man and so any evidence which seems to contradict that view can easily be thrown out as ‘just another thing they did’. This is exactly the same as the 9-11 truthers dismissing any science which goes against their view of it being an inside job.

It’s difficult because the documentary is so excellently constructed to impart a specific point of view but an open mind should be maintained at all times. And, to agree with Dean Strang, one of Stephen Avery’s defence lawyers, it might be best is Stephen is guilty because it would be preferable to the alternative.

SOLD A STORY

And that brings me on to something very important. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a real case and a real woman is dead. It’s great fun to play detective, to get outraged, to sign petitions, but all this renewed attention will be bringing further pain to a family who has suffered a great loss.

I’ve seen comments rebuking Mike Halbach, brother of Teresa, for his demeanour in press conferences in the documentary but I can feel nothing but sorrow for him, not only for the loss of his sister, but also for the lies he has been sold. As I said, I am of the view that Avery and Dassey are not guilty and that a case has been constructed in bad faith intending to put them away. Mike Halbach was not complicit in this. He comes from a different town and won’t know (or at least won’t appreciate the extent of) the history between Avery and the Manitowoc Police Department. He will have met the police and DA and trusted them as we all expect to be able to trust the police in such matters. He has been told a story and has, to use a highly emotive and perhaps inappropriate word, been indoctrinated by them.

It is, of course, totally understandable. He will have been told that Avery will say anything in his defence and not to believe it. He will be desperate for closure and someone to blame. And given the circumstances I doubt he’d have the ability to evaluate the evidence in a dispassionate manner. Add to that the fact that, on the face of it, the defence seems so far fetched. I mean, Avery’s defence is hardly Occam’s Razor. As one of his defence lawyer’s states early on, it’s not exactly the ideal defence to be offering. So with that in mind, why would Mike Halbach question what he’s been told?

Just like we, the viewers, are sold on Avery’s innocence (for the most part, anyway) and are liable to dismiss any evidence which disproves the story we want to hear, so Mike Halbach will not want to believe that Avery’s defence is remotely possible. What’s the alternative? That the people he trusted, the people there to protect and serve, to deliver justice, all lied to him to get even with someone who’s life they had already ruined once, while the real killer has been free for a decade and no one in a position to do anything about it has shown any inclination to do so. Horrifying.

This aspect was just one way in which I was reminded of the Meredith Kercher murder and Amanda Knox trial. As Knox’s first trial was starting I read a book called The Monster of Florence about a spate of killings in Florence and surrounding area which (and forgive some vagaries, it’s a while since I read it) were pinned on a group of men, supposedly carrying them out as part of some underground sex cult. The book details an incredible and ridiculous story concocted by the police and prosecutors that has more than a few resonances with the Kercher case. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise considering the same men were in charge of that investigation too. The bizarre sex cult aspect is the most obvious connection between the two and seems to be more of an obsession for the prosecutors than pretty much anyone else in the world.

As with the Halbach case, the Kercher family were told a story from the beginning by the prosecutors and have almost been held hostage by it, requiring the closure but not being given it. They maintain their belief that Knox is guilty (or at least said they did when she was finally acquitted), and probably always will, and I can’t blame them. I am convinced Knox is innocent but as with Mike Halbach, it would be so painful to think anything else. And as with Halbach, I can only feel sorry for them for not only having lost someone but having been lied to by the people they should be able to trust the most. I think we’d all like to think we could see past the bullshit being fed to us but I’m not sure any of us could.

For a true demonstration of how unpalatable this would be you just have to read this interview with Penny Beerntsen, the woman who’s testimony put Stephen Avery in jail, wrongly, the first time. She trusted police to have the right man and when it turned out they had led her the wrong way she found it almost unbearable. Of course it’s easier to believe what the police tell you.

Another important aspect of these cases and the indoctrination process is the way in which the prosecutors used the media, a media hungry for all the sordid details. In both the Halbach and Kercher murders a young, attractive women was killed and those in charge of finding the killer(s) took every opportunity to talk to the press and make their case before all (or any of) the facts were in. In both cases, the story presented too good to be true and the press loved the opportunity to discuss it. In one, an attractive young woman was killed by another attractive young woman (and partners in crime) as part of a sex game. In the other, a man in jail for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit is now guilty of a far worse crime.

In both cases, the press helped sell the victims’ families the story. They all reported the culprits and events as fact (or may as well have) – no amount of “has been arrested for” and “has been accused of” disclaimers are going to undo the damage of the reporting. If everyone is telling you who the guilty party is, including the front page of every paper you see and the top item of any TV news report, how do you stop and ask yourself if it’s the right story?

WHERE NOW?

True crime has been popular forever. We consume it daily in newspapers (OK, news websites) and on the news on TV as it happens and so shows like Serial, The Jinx and Making A Murderer have to be, in some way, bigger or more compelling and there are only so many of those to go around. I imagine we will be inundated with stories such as these, but whether they will ever replicate the cultural impact of these three, well, I have my doubts. I fancy we’re nearing peak true crime and it won’t be long until it resumes its place at the more ‘pulpy’ end of the spectrum. It may be more obvious than it was, particularly on television, but it will surely be more exploitative, more resembling the Fox reporter seen in Making A Murderer exclaiming how bloody murder sells than resembling the honest (I think) attempt at searching for justice for Stephen Avery.

But even when true crime was often the reserve of the pulp novel, great works were produced, from In Cold Blood to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to The Devil in the White City, and this will surely continue to be the case.

What In God’s Name, by Simon Rich

This is a book cover. The book cover to What In God's Name. It's the UK cover. It's a lot better than the US cover. Trust me.

This is a book cover. The book cover to What In God’s Name. It’s the UK cover. It’s a lot better than the US cover. Trust me.

I rarely write posts about books because I rarely read anything that’s current. I might stock up on books as they come out but the order in which I read them is almost entirely on whim and often a reaction against whatever I have read before. However, I have just finished reading something a) good and b) recent so I thought it was worth a quick post…

People say that there aren’t any good romantic comedies anymore. Well, OK, I say it. Comedy is much harder than drama. If you right something that’s kinda gripping, kinda suspenseful, then it’ll probably do OK as a drama. If you right something that’s kinda funny, kinda witty, then that’s generally not good enough when it comes to comedy. Added to which, to be a really good comedy you have to have a pretty decent plot to go along with the jokes.

What In God’s Name, by Simon Rich (published in 2012, that’s how up to date I am!), offers a new twist on the romantic comedy, with two stories playing out simultaneously. The first is in the corridors of Heaven Inc, where Craig works as an angel in the Miracles Department. It’s Craig’s job to make little miracles happen all the time. These may be letting a kid catch a foul ball in a baseball match or helping an old woman in Belgium catch a bus – things we would never perceive as miracles but which enhance our lives nonetheless.

God, Heaven Inc’s CEO, has grown bored of earth. Originally the planet was set up as somewhere to harvest xenon (over 70 of Heaven Inc’s 84 floors are set up to aid this process), but as God grew bored he decided to create humans to amuse him. Between bouts of watching TV evangelists and dispatching angels to get Lynyrd Skynyrd back together or help the Yankees win the World Series, God’s attention is waning once again and when he finally decides enough is enough and issues a destruction order in 30 days, Craig takes it upon himself to save the planet and the people he has grown to love helping.

God offers Craig a deal – if he can answer one prayer from the giant stacks that have built up, the planet will be saved. The second story is the series of miracles he must carry out in order to get the humans involved past their fears and into a relationship together.

Rich uses the book to show us how we are often held hostage by our own fears and insecurities, and just how ridiculous that is. It could be seen as a paean to “Seize the Day”, but equally it brings out the romance in the idea that there are people looking out for us. Maybe not all the time (or all that competently), but they are there nonetheless.

The world of Heaven Inc is well realised and believable (or as believable as such a thing can be), and the references to real world events as either miracles or coincidence are nice touches. While rarely laugh out loud funny, every page presents something to smile about. It’s never meant to be anything more than a fun read, and it delivers precisely that while also having a level of depth and consideration which many titles lack. All in all, well worth taking the time to track down.

B+

And here is Simon Rich reader a short story of his that, I suspect, came about when he was writing the book, or perhaps inspired it. Or something. It’s funny, at any rate, and well worth a watch.

Endings – How do you create a satisfactory ending?

I recently spent a brilliant day at Mountbatten School in Romsey talking to groups of children about my book and writing in general. Much of that time was spent taking questions and trying to present some semblance of a useful answer, especially to the group of young creative writers. I failed to answer one question in a way I felt was adequate and so I’m going to try to do so here.

As you may have guessed, the question was How do you create a satisfactory ending? It’s something I’ve found at the front or back of my mind since I left the school. I felt bad for failing to give a good answer at the time, but I was also kind of curious as to what the correct answer is.

As with so many things in writing, the answer is (at least partially) that there is no correct answer. Every rule you can come up with there will be a story that breaks it somehow, and besides, if there were hard and fast rules the audience would know the ending early on because the rules say that is how the ending must be.

That said, there are two types of ending: the closed ending and the open ending. Most stories will feature some kind of combination of the two because, unless your story ends with the destruction of the universe, there will always be some things that aren’t wrapped up in a nice little bow. However, the two can be summed up as [closed ending] the hero is triumphant and the bad guys are punished or “and they lived happily ever after”, or [open ending] our lead character(s) is/are left with a dilemna, the resolution of which is left up to the audience to decide upon, or a character is left to think about and understand their situation and how they came to be the authors of it, while life continues around them.

The former is clearly more typical of genre fiction while the latter would be more likely considered either literary fiction (in the book world) or arthouse (in cinema). As an aside, some notable examples of the latter would be No Country For Old Men and The Long Good Friday, but also more mainstream fair like The Italian Job and the TV series The Shield.

Now, if you are working within a genre, there will be some conventions to uphold or subvert. A detective will always get his man (unless he doesn’t – see Sherlock Holmes and Moriaty). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back, or vice versa (unless he or she fails to do so). So to a certain extent your ending will be defined by the genre you are working in. You know that in a detective story you must have some red-herrings but also must have a suitable ending with enough clues dotted throughout the story that the resolution will make sense to your audience when they look back. However, this could be subverted by casting some doubt over the veracity of the arrest – this would perhaps be effective in an ongoing series of detective novels, adding a nagging doubt or guilt to a detective that s/he may have done the wrong thing.

But whatever you do in a genre novel, there is clearly some kind of finishing point that you are aiming for, and even a subversion of the conventions will still be referencing those conventions in some way or another. In, for wont of a better all-encompassing term, literary fiction you have a broader canvass to play with and your ending can go in any direction you like.

But then, that’s not strictly true, is it? Your ending can’t go in any way you like because, if it is well written, your characters won’t allow it to go in just any direction. Your characters, who must come alive to your audience, will behave in certain ways and will direct the story in a certain direction, and this is key to creating a satisfactory ending. The first and most important thing is that whatever happens at the end must be true to your characters and so be believable to your audience. The most unsatisfactory way for a story to end is to be left saying “But s/he wouldn’t do that!”

However, that still doesn’t tell you how the story should end. Well, there are two keys here, to my mind – and again, as with every other rule, they are there to be broken. The first is that, generally speaking, there will be a unity of theme flowing throughout the piece, something which is reflected in your characters and the through-line of the story, something which supplies some semblance of an answer to the question “What was that about?”. In a genre piece this will typically be just “a jewel heist”/”a murder”/”a blossoming affair between two rival cheese-merchants”/whatever. In literary fiction (again, used as a generic term), this might be “the class rivalries in rural England”/”the way that power can corrupt even the most innocent”/”the ethics of modern meat production as told through the eyes of star-crossed cheese-makers”/whatever. The point is, in this more open type of story you are looking to put a cap not on your plot but on your theme. Your resolution could instead be considered akin to the conclusion of an essay – you are looking for a sequence in which your characters can embody the sum parts of the argument you are constructing about your theme earlier in the story.

But, and here’s perhaps the most crucial part, there should be a sense of dramatic resolution to it. You don’t want your resolution to be didactic. If you end up just telling the audience what the point of everything that went before was, that’s not satisfying for anyone. Instead, your summary needs to shine through in the actions of your characters.

Of course, there’s a second part to this question, and that’s the more immediate How do you end a story? By which I would take a more literal reading – literally how do you write the final page, the final full stop? How do you make that last sentence work? And the answer to that is… I don’t know. It it will completely depend on what has gone before. You may want to leave your reader/viewer in the seat of your protagonist by ending on their final thought on all that has gone before. You may want to leave them more abruptly at the culmination of all that has gone before – when the girl is swept off her feet by the boy, when the detective announces the villain to the room, when the white-hatted cowboy shoots the black-hatted cowboy – it is, after all, the most dramatic moment of the story and could send your reader out on a high.

But at the end of the day, as I said, it is particular to what has already transpired in your story and it is something that will probably come from a combination of instinct and trial and error. If you’re not sure, write an ending, leave it for a week and then come back to it. Re-read what you have written – if it works, keep it, if not change it.

And now I am just left with the puzzle of how to end this piece. Erm…

Review: Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

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The biggest problem with The Casual Vacancy is that it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not a problem for me, and I am guessing that JK Rowling doesn’t have much of a problem with that either, but for a lot of readers this will be an issue. Not an issue, this will be THE issue. Because of the name on the front cover, a lot of people will read this book who wouldn’t have otherwise read it, and a lot of those people may find themselves disappointed, not because it’s not a very good book (it is), but because it’s nothing like what came before. I dare say that with a different name on the cover, this book would have garnered better reviews (they’ve been on the positive side of mixed) and generated greater respect for its author.

I came to this book as someone who had seen all of the Harry Potter films, read one of the books, and written for the same target audience. Why hadn’t I read more? I tend to read adult literature and I didn’t feel the need to read more of HP, to put it simply. It was nothing against Rowling. But I was intrigued by what she would write when it came time to move on. It was clear she was a good story-teller, but would she be able to get to grips with something aimed at adults? This always strikes me as a strange question. The assumption always seems to be that if you can do something for a kids audience you won’t be able to translate it to an older group but there’s no reason why not. It’s certainly something I had thought about. Before How To Fill A Black Hole I had always been writing about adult subject matter (albeit in script form rather than prose) and I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.

Anyway, I picked up the book and got stuck in. It seemed like there was an early statement of intent. While the page numbers were still in their teens there had already been a glimpse of naked breasts as well as some upper-end swearing (with some F’s and a C thrown around). Rowling was clearly making sure we knew this was adult material and a world away from what she had written before.

What also became clear was that Rowling has a brilliant sense of character, bringing out the inner lives of her subjects vividly. I immediately recognised who these people were, I could picture them and understand how they lived their lives. These weren’t hollow shells fulfilling a role in a story, they were people living in a village; their actions were real, they were what these people would do; their interactions were wholly believable.  And this is crucial to the story Rowling is telling, which essentially is a butterfly effect piece: an event occurs in the first few pages and we follow the way the chain of events envelops a disparate group of characters.

The story concerns a vacancy on the parish council for the (fictional) West Country village of Pagford due to the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother. The council is currently deadlocked over a number of issues concerning the ownership and running of an estate known as The Fields, an area ‘true Pagfordians’ look down upon. The identity of the new councillor could decide the future of the estate. One simplistic way of looking at this might be to describe it as Miss Marple meets The Wire, though while there’s a death at the centre of the story, it’s not murder.

This backdrop allows Rowling the opportunity to write something of a ‘state of the nation’ piece showing all points of view regarding how underprivileged areas and people should be treated and whose responsibility they are. It’s the kind of thing that is rarely seen in this country (well – I’ve rarely seen, but I’m nowhere near as widely read as perhaps I should be). I have seen pointed out elsewhere that Rowling is in a pretty unique position having spent a proportion of her life in almost every strata of British society, and it seems she has taken on a position to comment on all of these.

(It also appears clear that she has a view on who is right and who is in the wrong, but given that this conforms to my own opinions, this may just be my reading of the text.)

There have been complaints that the book is too bleak a portrait, that every character is miserable and that life always offers some light, some laughs, along the way. I have to say that this was not my interpretation but that I can see how such views could be derived. Rowling’s characters rarely have good things to say (or think) about each other, be they husband and wife or vowed enemies and certainly one could view their portrayal as a depressing commentary on middle England, but I prefer to think of it as a richly dark and tragic comedy. Even so, the desire for light seems a view coloured (at least slightly) by the Harry Potter stories. Granted, these became bleak as they went on, and there is no one in Pagford who can be called the true personification of evil in the same way as he who may not be named, but even so, there was generally fun to be had along the way with the Weasley twins, with the new teachers and new spells, and with Quiddich. You will not find the same kind of entertainment on offer here, it’s true.

Some reviews have looked down on the quality of the writing but for me this was unfair and, indeed, petty. I am always going to side with a good story well told over pages of flowery language, and if you’re coming to this looking for flowery language (which I doubt many readers are) then you’ll leave disappointed. But Rowling does succeed in telling a very good story, drawing the reader into the inner lives of her characters, making them feel the pain and the heartache suffered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s especially good at writing the inner lives of her younger protagonists, making sense of the often nonsensical teenage years and yearnings, the way the raging hormones can push you into saying or doing things you know you shouldn’t.

This is a vividly created world and the occasional weak metaphor is no reason to dismiss it. But that said, one of the lines I have seen criticised was one that stood out for me as something to be celebrated:

“Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.”

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the writing (and my taste) from that. Granted, there are weak lines (“But then came the hour than changed everything” is overblown for a moment that just pushed the story onwards, like so many other moments in the book), but for me the individual lines are not what matters here, it is the greater whole, not the individual brushstrokes but the picture painted, and Rowling has created a rich tapestry of early 21st century middle England.