Fans of hit true crime podcast turn detective

Podcast protagonist: Adnan Syed is in prison for the murder of his former girlfriend © PA

Tomorrow, the podcasting phenomenon ‘Serial’ will conclude its investigation into a 16-year-old murder case. Fans are on tenterhooks. But is it wrong to turn tragedy into entertainment?

When 17-year-old Hae Min Lee fails to return from school one evening, police launch a frantic investigation. Four weeks later her corpse is found abandoned in a park. Suspicion quickly turns to Hae’s ex-boyfriend, a well-liked fellow student named Adnan Syed, with good grades and a place on the football team. The evidence against him seems decisive. After a six-week trial he is sentenced to life in prison. But has justice really been served?

It sounds like the plot of a ‘True Detective’ or ‘Twin Peaks’ murder mystery. And in a way, it is: the case of Hae Min Lee is the subject for the first season of a podcast called ‘Serial’, in which listeners gradually explore the intrigues and inconsistencies surrounding the crime and get to know its key protagonists.

What makes ‘Serial’ different from most whodunnits is that the story it tells is no fiction. Hae Min Lee is a real girl who was murdered in Baltimore in 1999. Her alleged killer, Adnan Syed, has been locked up ever since.

The true-life drama has become a phenomenon. It is the most successful podcast ever made, with over 20 million downloads in its first two months. 'Serial' addicts will spend tomorrow morning compulsively refreshing their iPods as they await the season’s finale.

For some, the zeal of fandom goes far beyond the podcast itself. An entire flourishing subreddit has spawned endless analyses and hypotheses about the facts surrounding Hae’s death. Slate magazine has even launched a second podcast to review the weekly revelations of the first.

But while this frenzy of speculation is fun for fans, it has been extremely unsettling for the people involved in the case. Hae’s family has refused involvement from the beginning, and the parents of the accused have spoken of their unease at ‘five million detectives trying to work out if Adnan is a psychopath‘.

In last week’s penultimate episode Adnan revealed that the long investigation has shattered the peace of mind he had found in jail. ‘I don't care how your story portrays me, guilty or innocent,' he said. 'I just want this to be over.’

Murder she spoke

Have we forgotten, ask some horrified critics, that an innocent person was killed? Obsessively lingering over every detail of her death is ghoulish, exploitative and downright creepy. If you want a puzzle, try Agatha Christie or sodoku. Real-life tragedy should not be a source of entertainment.

There’s nothing disrespectful about turning real life into a story, counter ‘Serial’ fans: that’s simply the way we humans understand the world. The reason so many people are riveted is that this is great investigative journalism. And — who knows? — it may even bring a killer to justice.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to be entertained by a real-life tragedy?
  2. Why do you think murder mysteries are so timelessly popular?

Activities

  1. Find an interesting story in the news and write an account of it as though it’s a work of fiction.
  2. Write a review of a murder mystery you recently watched or read. Did it keep you guessing or not, and why?

Some People Say...

“We’re all stories, in the end.’Doctor Who”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never even heard of this podcast.
Maybe not. But there are plenty of other circumstances in which we turn to non-fiction for entertainment — the celebrity gossip pages, for instance, or reality TV. It’s always worth thinking about how the media is making use of the real people behind the story and whether they are being fairly represented.
Is this the first time the media have investigated a real crime in depth?
Far from it. Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, one of the most famous works in the history of journalism, was a four-part account of a spate of murders. Crime has always been fertile territory for reportage; what’s different about ‘Serial’ is how its enormous fan base has used the internet to carry the investigation further.

Word Watch

Podcast
A regular audio download, usually involving stories or discussions. The word comes from mixing ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’.
Whodunnits
A genre of crime fiction in which the tension comes from uncertainty about who committed the crime. The phrase was invented by Variety magazine in the 1930s.
Subreddit
Reddit is a giant online forum on which users discuss events and exchange links. A subreddit is a section of the site devoted to a particular topic.
Psychopath
A person who suffers from psychopathy finds it difficult or impossible to empathise with other people and feels little remorse for actions that harm other people. Psychopaths often behave in antisocial ways, but the vast majority are not murderers; nor are the vast majority of murderers psychopaths.
Agatha christie
A prolific novelist most famous for her 66 detective novels, many of which featured one of two iconic sleuths: Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and temperamental Belgian investigator, and Miss Marple, a prim but spectacularly meticulous amateur crime fighter.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.