True crime on page and on air: A fan's notes

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Dreamland by Sam Quinones showed up on a lot of year-end best lists last year. I still resisted it. I know the opiate epidemic, fueled by pill mills, has transitioned into a heroin epidemic, especially in the midwest and the Northeast, where I'm from. I know they are related, and have been devastating to families and communities.

But I had a hard time getting past the difference between the societal and governmental reaction to this drug scourge, versus crack in the 1980s — which begot the whole three strikes policy that saw people going away for life for a lousy $30 drug buy. Prescription pain medication abuse wasn't treated the same way. Plenty of people died from the crack epidemic, too. Plenty of lives, families and communities were destroyed. But now pain meds and heroin are affecting white middle class kids and their parents! So suddenly it's everybody's problem.

Still, when I saw Dreamland on the table at our new Books & Books at The Studios of Key West I couldn't resist picking it up — and I'm so glad I did. This is one of the best works of reported nonfiction I have read in years.

Quinones expertly traces the two streams that converged to create our current opiate epidemic: the over-prescribing of opiate medications, on the (mistaken) assumption that they weren't terribly addictive and the marketing of black tar heroin by young men from one particular region of Mexico.

The pain pills were the result of doctors who genuinely wanted to help people - and drug companies (and less scrupulous doctors) that wanted to make money. All of them relied to an inordinate extent on a short letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the addictive qualities of opiates - a letter that was later cited as a "landmark study" in the popular press and pharmaceutical sales pitches.

The Mexican heroin trade looks almost admirable by contrast — because the "Xalisco boys," as Quinones calls them, created an insanely successful, resilient web of heroin sales that relied on pagers (and later cell phones), moving small amounts and an apparently infinitely sales force. They didn't carry guns and they only imported small amounts and carried even smaller amounts when they sold. It was far easier to deport them than to prosecute them. And the drugs were delivered to clients in fast food parking lots, not scary street corners.

Quinones assembles an astonishing amount of information and tells the story so well you don't feel like you're reading a treatise or a sociology text. And he takes time, when appropriate, to address that beef I have with the way the opiate epidemic has been treated – because now the kids of people in power are getting affected.

Listen to that

The other piece of excellent reporting I've come across recently is the second season of Breakdown. That's the podcast produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They said forthrightly that they were inspired by Serial but in some ways I prefer it. It's more straight-up reporting, with less introspection. And in the first season, they really addressed the systemic problems facing the defendant — and all poor defendants in Georgia.

 Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Like Serial, the second season is not a question of did-he-or-didn't-he. It's a what-crime-did-he-commit (if any). And they've picked a doozy — Ross Harris, the young Atlanta father who left his toddler son in the car all day. The son died. Harris, it turns out, was a serial philanderer, making the defense's case even harder.

Throughout, AJC court reporter Bill Rankin is a terrific guide to the case and to the court system in general. He's knowledgable and good at explaining proceedings for laypeople, as well as consulting attorneys and other experts who know the system from the inside. It's all exactly what I want from a journalism podcast — going deeper into a story than you possibly could in a 15-inch newspaper story or a 4 minute radio feature. Bravo.

Serial: The Case For Season Two

Unlike its first, celebrated, season, the second season of Serial kind of snuck up on me.

Today's installment is apparently the last one and I was really sad to hear that. Both because I thought this season was great — and because I haven't heard or read other people talking about it.

Which is a damned shame because in my opinion, season 2 is better than season 1. Here are my reasons:

1) It's an entirely different subject. This may be more of an argument in favor of the Serial approach as a whole rather than this individual season. But they deserve huge credit for taking on  a whole new subject (Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan and spent five years as a prisoner of the Taliban) rather than going back to what had been so spectacularly successful in their debut (true crime).

2) It's not fair to call this less complicated — Adnan Syed's case was immensely complicated. And it's not really fair to say this has larger implications because I think Syed's case illustrates a LOT of problems with our justice system in general — even if most people who get all into stories like Serial or Making A Murderer seem to focus only on those individual stories. But Bergdahl's individual story, as investigated by Koenig, wound up telling a hugely important story in a way that it almost never gets told: how terrible conditions are for the soldiers we send to Afghanistan. Not because Bergdahl is some kind of hero. It's pretty clear that he was a young man who was more than a tad delusional about what his individual actions might mean and how he could accomplish his goals. But he's also, it turns out, a guy who washed out of Coast Guard boot camp — and then was accepted anyway when he enlisted in the Army. And anyone with any sense knows he is far from the only person not prepared to handle the conditions he faced when sent to Afghanistan, or any war zone. That's why PTSD is such a widespread problem — and has been from time immemorial. I think in this season, compared to last, host Sarah Koenig and her team did a much better job in conveying the wider social implications of the story they were telling. You really shouldn't listen to the last episode without going through them all — but that last episode was magnificent in spelling out the context. Bergdahl's story reminded me of works of literature from "The Red Badge of Courage" to "A Bell For Adano." I'm sure if I knew my classics better I'd be thinking of Homer, too. And it also made me think pretty hard about my responsibility, as an American citizen, toward the people we send off into these places. The season as a whole also gave me so much respect and compassion for the individual soldiers who served with and looked for Bergdahl. Those of us who don't have a lot of direct contact with the military can find it pretty easy to categorize and dismiss them but they are, wouldn't you know, a group of diverse, intelligent, complicated humans who, like Bergdahl, were trying to cope with some pretty horrific conditions. Because we, as a country, asked them to.

3) Another aspect of this season that I liked so much better was how much less personal the reporting felt. Probably because Koenig did not actually talk to Bergdahl — she was using tapes from filmmaker Mark Boal and his company, Page 1. I appreciated that little bit of distance because she spent less time obsessing about her feelings about her subject and more time just reporting the damned story. She still has that very personal reporting and editing style, in the This American Life vein, and that's totally cool. But I got a lot less of the "how does this story make me feel" vibe that occasionally annoyed me last time.

4) Maybe I should be glad that people aren't talking and writing obsessively about Serial this time ... because one of the other things that annoyed me in the first season was how it was geared and received as entertainment. I get it — I like true crime as much as most people. I read and watch my fair share. And I understand that when you make a story compelling, it gets attention. And that's good. But with subjects this serious — a murder and a murder conviction and the cascading consequences of one young man's reaction to terrible conditions in service of his country — treating it like an HBO drama just feels wrong. I was interested to see, just now, that Mark Boal's company Page 1 was set up "to explore the intersection between reporting and entertainment." At least according to Serial. That is a very interesting, and fraught, intersection indeed. I will be very interested to see what he does with the Bowe Bergdahl material.

Podcast of the Week: Serial

This week's recommendation is a new podcast ... but you might have heard of it. Serial is the first spinoff podcast from This American Life, the game-changing public radio show. The spinoff itself could be a game-changer since it's launched as a podcast, not as a show intended to air on the radio. It's getting rave reviews from The New Yorker, Slate, Gizmodo and more. It just released its third episode and it's already no. 1 on iTunes. Ira Glass was on The Tonight Show to promote it. The Tonight Show! Even though he did spend most of his time talking about that stupid Shakespeare tweet.

Serial is good old-fashioned investigative journalism in a new, informal podcast mode. Producer Sarah Koenig tells us how she heard about the story, so from the start we're along for the journey, not being presented with conclusions. Adnan Syed has been in prison for 14 years, convicted of murdering his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, during their senior year of high school. Some of Syed's friends don't think he did it and the evidence is purely circumstantial.

Koenig includes telephone conversations with Syed, conversations with people who knew both teenagers ... and her own changing attitudes toward the prisoner and his case. The attorney for his trial -- who has since died -- clearly missed some important evidence, including a potential exculpatory witness. But other parts of Syed's story just don't add up.

This series is a natural for people who like true crime and it's a true mystery -- the producers are still reporting it even as the series is starting to air. I'm a fan of Law & Order, True Detective and just about every BBC-produced police procedural. Inspired by the recent Key West Literary Seminar, I've recently increased my reading in contemporary crime fiction. But having covered a few trials and loving narrative nonfiction in general, I'm even happier when I come across well-written, well-reported true crime, which seems to be rarer than the fictional varieties.

Some recent examples, if you're interested: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, True Story by Michael Finkel and Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm. That last one is as much a meditation on journalism and justice as a book about a trial, in the classic Malcolmian manner.

The reason I'm recommending Serial, even though it's so new and I've only listened to the first two episodes, is that if you jump on now, you'll have a chance to follow it as it unfolds. They're posting one episode a week, with a total of 12 planned episodes for this story and more stories to come in the future. Who knows, this could be the first podcast that breaks out into a truly mainstream cultural conversation.

If you don't already listen to podcasts, the easiest way to do so is to subscribe on your smartphone's podcast app. If you don't have a smartphone or don't want to do that, you can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. And if you don't want to do any of those things, you can always just go to the individual podcast's website -- in this case, it's here

Previous recommendations:

Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Chapter One download

Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lifetime should hire these three for a regular show analyzing their movies. Photo by Nick Doll, courtesy of the Key West Literary Seminar I was confident the Literary Seminar was going to be great. First of all, it always is and second, with this line-up, how could it not be? Carl Hiaasen brought down the house Friday night, just as you'd expect. Joyce Carol Oates was eerily mesmerizing, like she always is. Still, it's the unexpected that brings me the most pleasure. And though I hoped (see previous post, below) that the women were going to be my favorite parts of the event, they managed to eclipse my expectations.

The highlight was a Sunday morning panel titled "Fatal Vision: The Imprint of True-Crime Movies." The panel consisted of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. They set out by telling us that the panel's title had been classed up and what they were going to talk about was their unironic love for Lifetime movies. And then they did. It's already on the Seminar's Audio Archives page and it's worth the listen even if you've never seen or wanted to see a Lifetime movie in your life. Laura Lippman has already written a great essay expanding on the panel's central theme -- the lack of meaty roles for middle-aged women in Hollywood and how the true crime genre, frequently derided as trashy, allows women to express their full dark sides. Clearly it speaks to great numbers of people -- mostly but not all women -- and it goes beyond the camp value of seeing Meredith Baxter or Farrah Fawcett enter a homicidal fugue state. Several female friends and I agreed immediately after this panel that we need to have a Netflix movie viewing binge weekend. I also think Lifetime should consider hiring these three to host a show about the genre.

Gender was on my mind a lot through the weekend -- and not in a preachy, academic kind of way. Perhaps because we started off with a keynote from Sara Paretsky, a pioneer of kickass female P.I. fiction. Cara Canella wrote a nice piece about it for Littoral and the address itself is on the Audio Archives page. And BTW, keep an eye on Littoral in general for great Seminar coverage, words and pictures, throughout. Many people were kind enough to say nice things about my program intro Friday morning and it's also excerpted on Littoral.

The other great revelation to me during this Seminar was not a younger woman at all, but an older gentleman -- Alexander McCall Smith. He's easily dismissed as a writer of gentle cozies. He is, in person, hysterically funny and one of the Seminar highlights was when he would crack himself up reading his own work. Hopefully the audio will appear soon; when it does I'll post it here.

I was tweeting a lot during the Seminar (I'm @keywestnan; the Seminar itself is @keywestliterary) and so were a few other people, mostly under the hashtag #kwls. If you're Twitter-averse, here are some of the Chapter One highlights in snippets I managed to jot down:

Sara Paretsky:

"In any situation, I anticipate the worst outcome, which by no means prepares me for the worst when it actually arrives."

"Every writer's difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech."

In crime fiction she read as a young person, the most defiant of female stereotypes, "in a cheerful Jell-O eating way, was Nancy Drew."

"I write, I chronicle, but I retreat from personal confrontation. People ask if [V.I.] is my alter ego. She is not. She is my voice."

Paretsky aspires to write like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell -- storytellers who used social issues as backdrops and used their fiction to tell essential truths about our emotional lives, "what we fear, what we want, what we need."

Joyce Carol Oates:

"It's a rare homicide that destroys only one person."

Scott Turow:

"What people really want to know desperately is why it happened, why a crime occurred."

"Recognizing that crime was a subterranean passion changed my life."

Gillian Flynn:

She is often asked "Does Gillian Flynn hate women? No. I think that's a misogynistic question, actually."

On whether she'll write a sequel to Gone Girl: "I think it's very important for me to get away from Nick and Amy for a little bit. It might be interesting to visit them in 10 years or so and see how they're doing. Not well, I assume."

John Katzenbach:

"My books are about people who are caught up in great moral and ethical quandaries, which they solve with a volley of gunfire."

"What ordinary people can think up to do to each other is far worse than anything I can come up with in my worst mood."

Journalism is "a wonderful way to channel yourself into becoming a writer, because you learn so much so damned quickly."

Laura Lippman:

"Fiction is a better vehicle for truth than journalism."

Journalism is good training for writing because it makes you a professional. "You meet deadlines. You don't take yourself too seriously. You get up, you write. It's a job."

"I have limitations. I don't think the genre does."

"I'm really happy to be in a genre where people read."

"Things that make men cry are considered profound. Things that make women cry are considered sentimental. … You wouldn't have to have a panel defending the gangster film."

Joseph Kanon:

On a favorable review of his first book, which praised him by saying has had "enough talent to write a serious novel" : "I did write a serious novel. It just happened to have a body on the first page."

After being criticized by a reader for his description of a gun: "From now on, I'm just pushing people out of windows. … The only interesting thing is why they did it, not how."

Stephen L. Carter:

"There's a big downside to writing historical fiction. The big downside is running into people who know the history better than you do after you've written the book."

William Gibson:

"Neuromancer is just a caper plot. … I personally think it doesn't quite make sense … which one finds out when one tries to write a screenplay of it."

Of the book he's currently writing: "I still don't know who did it. I'm really close to the end of the book and I'm going to have to decide who did it."

"The Wire may be as close as anything we have to Dickens today."

"I've continued to resort to mostly MacGuffin plots … the simplest little Rube Goldberg plot mechanisms but they seem to get me through to the end and they don't get in the way of doing all the wacky stuff I really love to do."

Billy Collins:

"I don't do dark very well. I don't do crime. But I can do creepy and I can do freaky."

"I tell my students if you're majoring in English, you're majoring in death. It's all about the mortality."

Attica Locke:

"America is a great freedom experiment that has to keep testing its results."

Carl Hiaasen:

Key West's own convicted drug dealer turned fugitive fire chief Bum Farto is "a character no novelist could have plausibly created."

"In my books, the alligator usually wins."

On discarding sections of writing: "You don't want to throw away anything good in case you never come up with anything good again."

"Not thinking you're good enough is the only thing that makes you better."

On writing sex scenes: "You don't want to go someplace your significant other has never been."

"Every writer's office sort of becomes a tomb for awhile."

"The job of any writer is to entertain. That's what we're paid to do."

Alexander McCall Smith:

"It's very important to get your first line right because it's the only line many people read."

Jonathan Santlofer:

"There are just as many good and bad literary novels as there are good and bad crime novels."

At Yaddo, copies of books by Dennis Lehane and Lee Child were circulating among resident artists … in a brown paper bag. "It was as if people were delivering drugs to people's rooms."

Les Standiford:

"The Great Gatsby is structured as a detective novel. … In its form, in its structure, it's a suspense thriller."

Regarding literary short stories by writing students: "Nothing ever had to happen and nothing usually did."

"The only place that very many people read books they are not interested in is college."

James W. Hall:

All fiction starts with some sort of crime: "The normal social order, the equipoise of the world, has to be knocked out of balance."

Plot is what distinguishes crime novel from literary fiction, "a coherent, causally connected series of events. … People respond to that."

On the mid-century change from the novel as popular entertainment to highbrow art form: "They injected this sense of guilt, that you had to have an education to really appreciate what the novel was about."

Arthur Conan Doyle is the father of British detective fiction, but Edgar Allan Poe is the father of American crime fiction, which includes horror along with ratiocination. So a British Agatha Christie-like mystery starts with "an embarrassment on the rug" while an American crime novel starts with "a horror on the rug."

Megan Abbott:

On discomfort with the darker side of teen girls, ie. desire, hunger, aggression, jealousy: "Teen girls are supposed to be the objects of desire. They're supposed to be looked at. They're not supposed to desire."

"What is a more noir terrain than high school? When you're in it, there is nothing more powerful or more monstrous."

"I would not want to be a teenager today. I didn't want to be one then."

"It's a time when you're most curious about the world -- and most poised to have your illusions shattered."

"You bluff your way into situations you can't handle -- and the consequences can be dark and dire."

On the intensity of female adolescent friendships, even after you move on to adulthood: "It remains this invisible tattoo on you."

"Girls have always wanted to read icky things and probably always will … Dark young adult books did not start with The Hunger Games."

Recommended Reading:

D.R. MacDonald (recommended by Scott Turow)

Iain Sinclair (recommended by William Gibson, who said Sinclair is considered part of the London Project and sometimes described as "Peter Ackroyd on acid.")

Ned Bauman, specifically The Teleportation Accident (Gibson again, who described it as "the craziest thing I've read in 20 years.")

Gary Shteyngart (recommended by both Carl Hiaasen and Gillian Flynn)

Ian Frazier, specifically Coyote vs. Acme (Hiaasen)

Flattened Fauna, a book of photographs of roadkill (Hiaasen)

P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain (recommended by Flynn for the funny)

Rose MacCauley, The Towers of Trebizond (recommended by Alexander McCall Smith and I honestly could not tell if this was a tongue-in-cheek recommendation or not -- but after reading a little more about it I'm inclined to think it was sincere and the book is worth checking out.

Lois Duncan, Daughters of Eve (recommended by Megan Abbott)

Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan and Betty Broderick (recommended by Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn)

Evidence of Love by John Bloom (Lippman/Abbott/Flynn again -- another true crime book that was the basis for a Lifetime movie)

Very Much A Lady by Shana Alexander (this is the Jean Harris/Herman Tarnower story, specifically recommended by Abbott)

Fun Facts:

To unwind after a long day of writing dark material, Gillian Flynn plays video games for 10 minutes or so -- or else watches YouTube snippets from cheery musicals like "Singin' in the Rain." She also has a plaque on her desk that says "Leave the Crazy Downstairs." Carl Hiaasen, meanwhile, has a doormat outside his office that says "LEAVE."

Attica Locke's husband was delivered by Scott Turow's father (who was a Chicago ob/gyn)