A Novel That Confronts Our True-Crime Obsession

Maybe it was only a matter of time before the novel took on the podcast. You can barely crack the Times without encountering a heady profile of some hot new podcaster; when critics consider how stories are told—or even just use that language, how stories are told—they are as likely to be discussing podcasts as books. These same critics may belabor themes (the fugitive nature of truth, the slipperiness of memory) popularized by shows such as “Serial,” the 2014 blockbuster, narrated by Sarah Koenig, that investigated the killing of a Maryland girl. The series electrified group chats, provided rich loam for conspiracy theories, and turned hordes of millennials into experts on cell towers. Crucially, it also regarded its own genre, true crime, with ambivalence, wearing its nuance like a finely tailored trenchcoat. By melding suspense and self-awareness, it brought podcasts into a space previously reserved for literature. Eventually, it follows, literature was going to notice.

“I Have Some Questions for You” (Viking), the latest book by Rebecca Makkai, embraces the intricate plotting and emotional heft that made her previous novel, “The Great Believers,” a Pulitzer finalist. The new book, a murder mystery set at an élite boarding school, is being marketed as an irresistible whodunnit. But it also joins a growing number of critiques of true crime, with Makkai charging the genre on three counts: exploiting real people for entertainment, chasing gore rather than studying systemic problems, and objectifying victims, most of whom are pretty, white, rich, and “young, as we prefer our sacrificial lambs.” This last allegation evokes what Alice Bolin, in her essay collection “Dead Girls” (2018), calls the Dead Girl Show, a modern-day myth in which an investigator develops a “haunted, semi-sexual obsession” with “the highest sacrifice, the virgin martyr.” Makkai ironizes a group of true-crime addicts, integrating criticism of the Dead Girl Show into her dead-girl show. This is a risky gambit, and I had, well, some questions for her. Would the novel devolve into writerly self-satire? Or would it try to embody a responsible—perhaps even pleasurable—piece of crime literature?

Early in the book, the protagonist, Bodie Kane, is in a cab going to Granby, New Hampshire, where she will teach a two-week course on podcasting at her old boarding school. Bodie co-hosts a podcast called “Starlet Fever,” which reëxamines the lives of women in film. (“You’re like, Everything you know about Judy Garland is wrong,” one of her students says, with a hint of scorn.) In high school, Bodie wore Doc Martens and eyeliner. She was a stage tech who hoarded details about her classmates because, as she says, “I hoped this would help me become more like them, less like myself.” But, as Bodie rides toward campus, Makkai hints that she is not the outsider she perceives herself to be. Bodie can read “the scroll of calendar-pretty farmland” in ways that the cabdriver can’t; she feels every turn of the road in her muscle memory. Upon arriving, she is stirred to find that her alma mater, a stony vision “locked in ice and salt,” looks as if it “had been cryogenically preserved.”

Some things have changed, of course. Bodie’s podcasting students turn out to be more attractive than she and her classmates ever were—not on a spiritual level, but because of their flawless skin and teeth. (“The dermatologists and orthodontists have finally solved it,” Bodie thinks.) They’re also alarmingly thoughtful. One girl, Britt, lingers after class to express her reservations about true-crime podcasts: for her project, she’d like to choose a topic that Bodie has suggested—the 1995 murder of a Granby senior—but she’s disturbed by the genre’s tropes. “I see so much fetishizing,” Britt says. “I don’t want to be another white girl giggling about murder.” Bodie understands; she, too, dislikes how victims can “become public property, subject to the collective imagination.” She attempts to steer Britt toward structures, isms, the broader forces at play. “I still wonder how problematic that is,” Britt replies—a line that the reader would be forgiven for hearing as “yada yada yada.” The kid is obviously going to pursue the story.

Bodie’s own interest in the murder isn’t impartial. She knew the victim, Thalia Keith, a popular beauty whose body was found in the school swimming pool. She also knew, more glancingly, Omar Evans, a Black athletic trainer who was blamed and imprisoned for the crime. Both characters rise eerily from her memory: Thalia plays tennis, smells like a woodsy floral perfume from the nineties, and has a ruthless approach to bedbugs. Omar is young, divorced, and a little woo-woo: he “got the football players doing vinyasas” and “would go on about the difference between indica and sativa, would tell injured athletes who returned from the hospital with narcotic painkillers that they should chuck them all.” These details don’t fully reanimate either character, but their tang intimates how much remains out of reach.

For Bodie, the tragedy itself glistens with corrupt romance: “What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation?” she muses. “Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl. Girl as a series of childhood photographs, all marked with the aura of girl who will die young.” The queasy appeal of the Dead Girl Show, Bodie reflects, lies in how it absolves “the bystander, the voyeur, even the perpetrator—they’re all off the hook when the girl was born dead.” In contrast, Bodie, a student of structures, aims to implicate as many people as possible, and so does Makkai. As the title suggests, the novel is addressed to “you”—a decision that both mirrors the confiding, intimate quality of podcasts and places the reader under surveillance.

“You” also refers to a specific person: Dennis Bloch, a gentle, boyish music teacher who took a shine to Bodie in high school. He was “one of the best things about Granby,” Bodie recalls, but she can’t shake the suspicion that he was preying on Thalia, and that he might have been involved in her death. As the murder mystery assumes a #MeToo shape, the tone of the narration sharpens. (“My loyalty was a fierce thing. It was a dangerous thing. But you no longer had it.”) Bodie finds herself reëvaluating her own experience at Granby, seething at the sexist abuse she once accepted as normal. The kid who teased her relentlessly, the kid who grabbed her breast, the kid who pushed her head onto his penis—their offenses seem increasingly grotesque in the long shadow of Thalia’s murder. Bodie considers the possibility that rude jokes and femicide might sprout from a single rotting structure: “I could only now calculate the full, ugly weight of it.”

Makkai sharply conveys the insidiousness of misogyny. But, in blurring the line between dead-girl stories and shitty-man stories, she raises a tricky question: Should the tropes of #MeToo receive the same scrutiny as those of true crime? The issue isn’t about standing up for “fine young men” but about interrogating genres that have the potential to turn revelations of harm into lurid entertainment. At one point, Bodie describes scrolling through gruesome Reddit threads at 3 A.M., famished for something she cannot name. This echoes a subplot about Internet shaming that unfolds after a performance artist, Jasmine, creates a live show based on Bodie’s ex-partner Jerome, whom Jasmine also dated. In the show, Jasmine relates how Jerome pressured her for morning sex, even though she didn’t particularly enjoy it, and how he ordered them pepperoni pizza, forgetting her distaste for pork. She claims that Jerome felt entitled to mistreat her because he was older and a well-connected painter. To Bodie’s disgust, Twitter gleefully elevates Jerome as its villain du jour; he soon resigns from his teaching gig and gets dropped by his gallery.

“The latest research suggests they were covered in feather boas.”

Cartoon by Rich Sparks

Jerome is not an especially sympathetic character, and Makkai seems less interested in what justice might look like for him than in parsing the frenzy over the allegations. Bodie finds the outcry almost offensive—“It was like seeing someone hanged for stealing gum when down the street someone else was robbing a bank,” she complains—but, elsewhere, she admits, “I have cared as much . . . about people I haven’t met.” A parallel emerges between murder buffs and dogpilers: both get high on righteousness, the thrill of conjuring monsters to despise. At the same time, the contrast between Jasmine, galvanizing an army of thousands, and Thalia, objectified and voiceless, is inescapable. #MeToo testimony and true-crime entertainment may be analogues, but they are foils in one critical sense: a dead girl can’t tell her own story.

Makkai shrewdly sets much of her book in 2018, a point in the arc of #MeToo that felt defined by the painstaking revision of one’s memories. “We were, all of us, casting a sharp eye back on the men who’d hired us, mentored us, pulled us into coat closets,” Bodie says. “I had to consider now that perhaps you were skilled at subtly eroding boundaries, making adolescent girls feel like adults.” The creepy teacher has become an almost mandatory presence in female coming-of-age fiction, from Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” to Tess Gunty’s “The Rabbit Hutch.” What distinguishes Makkai’s turn is her detective framing: she understands that every high school, with its indelible characters and astronomical-seeming stakes, is a crime scene. A childhood is a closed case; remembering reopens it. “I’d been turning memories of you in the light, looking at their ugly backsides, the filthy facets long hidden,” Bodie thinks, of Dennis. What are flashbacks but clues to be read and reread on the way to a theory?

Of course, sometimes the theory dictates the flashback. For crime writers, who have good reason to attend to how this chain of command can fluctuate, deceitful memories have long been a plot staple. Makkai, though, approaches them as a writer curious about psychology. She deftly explores how remembrance can melt into reverie, especially in speculative sections that attempt to reconstruct the scene of Thalia’s death. And she nails, too, what it’s like to remember: the nimbus around adolescence, the retrospective force field that both intensifies and distorts. (Even the names feel magical: “Robbie Serenho . . . in his gold Granby Ski sweatshirt . . . Bendt Jensen . . . Lancelot to Beth’s Guinevere.”) For Bodie, much of the past is as tantalizing and irretrievable as the meaning of private jokes in an old yearbook. When memories do snap into focus, they emit a soft spookiness. “I’d forgotten about the light at Granby,” Bodie says. “Outside, in winter, it came down in needles; inside, it fell like soup.” This beautifully evokes the layered, full-body immersion that occurs when you return to a familiar place, and the weird gravity of an institution like Granby, whose students are transient but whose structures endure. Opening the door to a decrepit bathroom, Bodie immediately recognizes the stalls, the sink. “I couldn’t have told you a thing about this bathroom five seconds earlier,” she marvels, “and now I recognized every inch.”

“I Have Some Questions for You” unfolds as a succession of such moments, in which one has the sense, at the edges of awareness, of a crowd of knocking ghosts. There is the attack of the past; the fever dream of social media; the mad poring over pool measurements, scribbles in a planner, and quarter-century-old photographs. Phrases that begin “the one” recur throughout the book: “the one where her body was never found . . . the one where her body was found in the snow . . . the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp . . . the one where she walked around in her skin and her bones for the rest of her life but her body was never recovered.” As the clauses pile up, the victims blur together; Makkai achieves an effect similar to that of “Especially Heinous,” a novella by Carmen Maria Machado that relentlessly moves through more than two hundred imagined episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.” (“Two underage models are attacked while walking home from a club. . . . A disoriented, naked, pregnant woman is discovered wandering around Midtown. . . . A prostitute is murdered.”) Both works highlight the numbing, almost hallucinatory pervasiveness of violence against women, and illustrate how greedily such stories are consumed.

Can true crime be ethical? Makkai introduces Thalia’s story as “the one with the swimming pool. The one with the alcohol in the—with her hair around—with the guy who confessed to—right. Yes.” But, in those early pages, Makkai is only plotting the distance between what crime writing has been and what it could be. Her patient, evocative character work prevents Omar and Thalia from becoming types. Rather than chasing gore, she takes a wide-angle approach, depicting the exhaustion of standing trial and the indignity of police questioning. Scenes from prison, and glimpses of how Omar’s family experienced his loss, alternate with Bodie’s revelations about a world in which women are routinely diminished, abused, and killed. The result is not a book that leers at a discrete and unfathomable act of violence but one that investigates, as Britt puts it, “two stolen lives: those of Thalia Keith and Omar Evans.”

Makkai also rejects true crime’s most seductive feature: the verdict. We finish the novel knowing with near-certainty who killed Thalia and why. But the book’s marquee mystery—is the podcast any good?—remains unsolved. On the one hand, Britt follows Bodie’s lead in focussing on institutions and procedures, lighting up as a law professor explains the evolution of DNA technology. She refuses to move forward unless she can talk to Omar; she proposes to build the podcast around unanswered questions, such as “What influence did the school have over the State Police?” But the book also vivifies the fact that most (if not all) art and journalism has a predatory element. Bodie doesn’t set out to exploit Thalia or Omar, but she proves susceptible to her genre’s pulse-pounding charms. “You have to understand,” she says to Dennis, describing a crucial moment in the podcast, “with the music underneath, this was quite powerful.”

“Serial” listeners will remember the first season’s famously inconclusive ending. The facts once “seemed so attainable,” Koenig intoned, but “we didn’t have them fifteen years ago and we still don’t have them now.” What “Serial” understood was that true crime fetishizes not just dead girls but intimacy, the sense that we can know. In surrendering to remoteness and distance—what can’t be seen or decided, whether because of memory’s pliancy or people’s opacity—the show birthed something new, or seemed to. Makkai, as a fiction writer, draws on a long tradition of open-endedness. For her, suspending judgment is a creative act, inviting the novel’s last and most important thrall, in which imagination fills the gaps left by knowledge. By the final page, all options remain alive. “You” hold the knife. It’s the perfect crime. ♦

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