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Serial: is there hope of a happy ending?

By Dan Franklin

ADNAN: ‘You don’t really have no ending? It’s just…’

SARAH: ‘I mean, do I have an ending…? Hmmm’

In The Black Dahlia, James Ellroy tells the story of the investigation of the killing of Elizabeth Short, brutally murdered in Los Angeles in 1947, her body cut in half and drained of blood, her mouth sliced to her ears in a Chelsea Smile. The case of the ‘black dahlia’ remains unsolved – but in his novel Ellroy solves it, creating a mesh of conspiracy and cover-up but ultimately providing a resolution. Ellroy described the book as a ‘benediction in blood’ for his own mother, murdered when he was ten years old. He used fiction to resolve his open, ongoing trauma through the historical filter of another.

Today the twelfth and final episode of the Serial podcast was released. A new(ish) media phenomenon, Serial is an investigative true crime series hosted by Sarah Koenig that explores the murder of Hae Min Lee on 13th January 1999, for which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted and is serving a prison sentence.

I listened to the first nine episodes in a rainy weekend binge and like many others marvelled at the finely spun narrative exploring the holes and inconsistencies in the case – a collage of voices, phone calls, field reports, phone records and a year of research all carefully handled by Koenig, assisted by her amiable producer Dana. The importance of the existence of pay phones in Best Buy parking lots has never felt more critical.

The heart of the matter is the relationship between Sarah and Adnan (who she speaks to and records over the phone in prison), and her barely concealed sympathy for his plight.

The crucial exchange between Adnan and Sarah takes place in episode 6. Koenig asks if there is another Adnan inside him – a ‘deep, dark’ Adnan. He gets very upset at the suggestion: ‘not everyone has the ability to do something cruel and heinous like this […] It insults me to my core, man, you know what I mean?’

What then follows is the really fascinating exchange where Sarah backtracks and overcompensates for the offence. Adnan interrogates Sarah’s instinct that he is ‘a really nice guy’. He responds: ‘I mean for you to say that I’m a great person. I mean, like a nice person, then you know what I’m saying? That – I-I- don’t know I’ve only talked to you on the phone a few times.’ He invites her to question him from both sides – it’s as preposterous to him that some monster lurks under the surface, as much as it is to say that there is a good person underneath. It’s this tension at the heart of their relationship that makes the story so compelling.

It’s this lurking discomfort with human nature that fuels all good crime fiction. Serial has interesting parallels with Night Games, the true crime book by Anna Krien which investigates a rape trial, again with a female narrator who is more than aware that perhaps she holds some sympathy with the accused, a young Aussie Rules football player. That book follows a court case which is resolved, whereas Jill Leovy’s forthcoming Ghetto-side examines the homicide epidemic of Southern LA, where a whole range of ethnic, social and political factors mean that the truth is often conspicuously buried in community codes of honour and street justice where the state’s rule of law is absent. For the cops on the streets of LA, the mantra of ‘Always Be Closing’ is imperative, their clearance rates the indices for success.

But some cases aren’t so easily cleared – and so it goes with Serial.

Towards the end of the final episode, Adnan tells Sarah that she’ll never have certainty, that she shouldn’t take a side as to whether he did it or not. But for all her evident journalistic rigour, Sarah Koenig is a storyteller – a damn fine one – and shares her verdict on the case. The problem being that the evidence thrown up by the investigation, the information before us, is simply ‘not a story’. They didn’t have the facts fifteen years ago, and we still don’t now. This is the curse of ‘real life’, one that crime fiction and non-fiction seek to break, to give comfort and resolution: to make sense of the evil, and also the good, under the skin of everyone.

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