by Jonathan Rothwell

Serial and the whodunit format

I was finding it hard to articulate what I found so disquieting about Serial. Thankfully, its host, Sarah Koenig, with the help of a letter from its main subject, did that for me in this week’s episode.

Serial is a radio programme released as a podcast, telling a true story week-by-week. Its first season focuses on the death of a teenage girl in Baltimore in 1999.

Hae Min Lee disappeared after high school on January 13th, and was found dead in Leakin Park a month later by a passer-by. Her ex, Adnan Syed, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Adnan maintains his innocence. The case was brought to the attention of This American Life’s Sarah Koenig by Adnan’s relatives, who believe he’s telling the truth when he says he had nothing do with Hae’s death.

The show is indisputably a fine piece of detective work. Koenig has shown that the timeline of events upon which Adnan was convicted is vanishingly unlikely. For the prosecutor to have been correct, Hae Min Lee must have been dead by 2:36pm, 26 minutes after school finished, in the trunk of her car in the car park of a nearby Best Buy. Koenig has spoken to witnesses who vouched for Hae and Adnan still being on campus, and alive, well after 2:36. And the state’s case that Adnan strangled Hae in her car in the Best Buy parking lot, then called his friend Jay from a payphone for a ride? Koenig spoke to an alumnus of Hae and Adnan’s school who said there never was any payphone at that Best Buy.1

So it’s abundantly clear that Serial has achieved something. Even though the system is heavily biased against Adnan Syed ever winning an appeal or a retrial, Koenig has at least proven that the state’s case was spectacularly flawed.

Part of Serial’s success probably stems how it uses certain dramatic tropes to tell its story. Each episode ends with a brief “next time” teaser. Each episode brings us a new twist or turn in Koenig’s investigation. Many have compared it to The Wire in this respect, but I believe it has more in common with Forbrydelsen (and its American remake, The Killing) in the twisty, non-linear way it works through the details of the case.

But these comparisons have a fault. Forbrydelsen and The Wire are fiction. Grim, regularly horrifying entertainment, maybe, but they are still fiction made for our entertainment. Serial, however, discusses a real case, with real people. Treating it as a thriller seems, to my eyes at least, to be in rather bad taste.

Another factor of Serial’s difference from a crime drama follows on from this: it is truly interactive, in that it influences the outside world, and vice versa. Many of the people Koenig has spoken to came forward because they heard the podcast. And meanwhile, people on the streets, in offices and on the Internet are discussing it, and almost certainly have their own conclusions about what really happened on that afternoon.

Serial has become a whodunit, and this is not necessarily a good thing. There has always been a criticism that the whodunit format in fiction turns murder into a morbid parlour game. This seems doubly true when it’s a true story. While listening, I’ve found myself making guesses at Adnan’s innocence or otherwise, and then thinking, “who am I to decide? I’m just some guy with a pair of headphones.”2

Of course, one could compare this to any high profile murder case, with rampant morbid speculation from the press, and armchair detectives acting as judge, jury and executioner through the lens of this coverage. But this does not mean it is A Good Thing.

I have no doubt that Ms Koenig has always been cautious where necessary. The impression I have is of someone who has done their best to remain professional, and she has certainly done her best to retain tact, even when asking difficult questions about people’s sex lives as teenagers, or when asking Adnan about how he used to skim small amounts of money from the mosque’s collection fund.

But the show appears to have developed a life of its own. Serial seems to be forming a feedback loop. The penultimate episode, released yesterday, ended with a letter from Adnan: the speculation has been having an effect on him in prison. People on the outside are making up their minds: they either see a calculating, duplicitous monster, or they see someone wrongly imprisoned.

Adnan wants it to stop. So now is the right time for Serial, Season One to draw to a close. There really isn’t much else Koenig can do: she cannot force people to talk to her, and she cannot guarantee a sensational truth at the end. And going further, given the subject matter, might be more than a little gratuitous.

Serial is a very impressive achievement. I have confidence that the now-guaranteed Season Two will be very good.

But I only hope that the story Ms Koenig and her colleagues choose next time round isn’t another murder. I don’t particularly want to use someone’s loved ones’ bereavement, or the trial of an alleged killer, as entertainment.

  1. Incidentally, while this article was being written, the Best Buy Twitter account saw fit to post (and then delete) a rather tasteless joke about the payphone.

  2. For the record, if I had to guess: I don’t think he did it. Certainly not in the way the state prosecutor said he did, and probably not at all. But then again, my opinion is coloured through Koenig’s lens, and it isn’t exactly helpful: if Adnan didn’t murder Hae, then who did?