Mystery Writers Should Listen to S-Town.

Recently, I gave into pressure from everyone I know and watched S-Town, a podcast from the producers of Serial. By “everyone I know” I mean a bunch of people online who I’ve never met. Nobody I actually know has watched S-Town. That’s neither here nor there, just an observation about my fractured existence. Let me tell you, though, S-Town was just as good as “everyone” told me it would be. S-Town was essentially an excellent mystery novel, the kind of thing that should be enjoyed in an armchair with a tumbler of bourbon, maybe even a cigar. Even the prose was beautiful. Every now and then, Brian Reed would say something that I wish I could highlight, the kind of phrase I might produce after a few drafts. He just said it, though. Poetry came out of his mouth. I guess that’s why he’s on the radio.

Anyways, S-Town is a great mystery. It probably doesn’t hit every beat on Save the Cat, but who does? I for one don’t care that much about the damn cat. S-Town is a true literary mystery. It hits the important beats.

For example, the hook: a guy, John McLemore, called into NPR from Shit Town, Alabama to report a murder. In a leisurely southern drawl, he described his rose garden and then revealed that the Shit Town authorities swept a murder under the rug. The culprit: racism. John Grisham anyone!? The alleged murderer was the heir apparent to Triple K lumber. Don’t you just wish you made that up!? I mean, as an author. It’s deplorable as an actual business name.

Here come a couple of spoilers. They’re big ones, but they come early, both in episode 2, maybe 3. S-Town isn’t one of those books you flip through just to see how it ends. Even if I’ve spoiled it, it’s still worth listening to the whole thing. It’s all about the journey.

So the radio host, Brian Reed, goes down to Alabama and investigates the Triple K murder. Turns out, dun dun dun, plot twist #1, there was no murder.

The story isn’t over, though. Before the end of the next episode, someone else dies. During the remaining episodes, Reed investigates the death of the man who called into the show to report the murder, John McLemore.

It’s not exactly a murder investigation. It’s an investigation of John McElmore’s character, which proves to be a worthwhile pursuit, as he was a very interesting man. Brian Reed interviews people John knew from various periods of John’s unexpected life. He was someone worth hearing about–complicated yet relatable, brilliant. He’s the kind of character writers strive to create.

By the end of the podcast, Brian Reed solves the puzzle of John’s death, at least it seems. It’s a real man’s story, but at the same time it’s the kind of ending that a mystery writer would hope to come up with–surprising, clever, and right in front of everyone’s eyes the whole time. This is contrast to Serial, the other podcast “everyone I know” listened to. I loved Serial, but Sarah Koenig could not provide a satisfying resolution because the story she was investigating didn’t have one.

Anyways, I’d highly recommend S-Town, especially to mystery writers. Real life or no, it’s an example of how character can and should drive plot.


16 thoughts on “Mystery Writers Should Listen to S-Town.”

  1. I am woefully unable to listen to podcasts or audiobooks. Three sentences in and I’m either snoring or my mind is wandering. My theory is that since I’ve been out of school for so long, I’ve lost the capacity for active listening for long stretches. Makes me sad, though, when I hear about great podcasts.


  2. I finished it awhile ago. It was so compelling and just when you think you know where it’s going, it turns and twists.


  3. I love the whole series of “Serial” podcasts, the two previous that ARE crime/ mysteries and S-town that is really a character analysis of the southern small town residents — all of them, not just John.

    I agree that it can be difficult to listen to podcasts and audio books while doing daily tasks so I make specific times to listen. I run (ha ha ,walk) in the mornings, and that is the perfect time to listen. I have my iPod mini and (new) wireless headphones, and off I go. I find that the anticipation of the next chapter provided a lot of motivation for me to get out — I won’t know what happens unless I listen.

    I download audio books from my library’s website and easily transfer them to my iPod. I previously just had a $10 MP3 player that I picked up at Toys R Us, and it worked fine, but needed wired headphones, so I went for the whole updated digital thing and got the iPod mini and Bluetooth headphones.

    Try it Becky Clark; I’ll bet you won’t fall asleep while walking.

    Walking is good for my body and listening is good my my mind, so I now have the best of both worlds.


    1. I wish I was back in exercise mode, but I can only walk for about 10 minutes at a time, and I still have to concentrate pretty hard or my feet tend to go in different directions!


  4. 3 no 7 is right–podcasts are easy. You can also just listen on your computer while doing the dishes or folding laundry. I did a lot more housework than normal while listening to Serial. 🙂


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