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.