“A murder is the culmination of a lot of different circumstances, all converging at a given moment at a given point.” – Agatha Christie, Towards Zero
I’ve been on a true crime story kick lately. Not the badly-acted cable version where the husband offs his wife, drives her body and her car to a remote place, makes a call on her cell to establish her last sighting (and ostensibly his alibi) and then drives away in the stashed getaway car forgetting to have turned off his own phone so his location is quickly triangulated. Do those guys even watch TV? I think not.
Not that kind of true crime. Lately, I’ve gotten into stories that explore the personalities, motivations, how the people involved got where they came to, all those things “converging at a given moment at a given point” and then their disassembly afterwards. Fascinating.
Three stories I have to recommend to you: one book, one podcast and one Netflix series. The book is told from the detective’s point-of-view. The other two are told from the accused’s.
Finding Bethany is a memoir written by my friend, retired homicide detective Glen Klinkhart. Bethany’s story and Glen’s dogged pursuit of her killers was feature on ABC’s 10/10, CNN.TIME and Dateline NBC. I remember when this crime happened. A young woman from the tiny hamlet of Talkeetna moved to Anchorage to start college. She disappeared shortly after. Her parents were frantic. They plastered every public surface with missing posters. The news shows broadcasted updates daily. The updates were: nothing happened. She hasn’t been found.
What were the police doing? From the public’s perspective: a whole lot of nothing. But that wasn’t true. I didn’t know how hard they were working until I read this book.
The detective assigned, Glen Klinkhart, had for years borne guilt and feelings of helplessness after his own sister, Dawn, was murdered. The memoir is about how over the course of his police career, working from case to case, he acquired the skills and insight to solve murder cases culminating in the tracking and capture of Bethany’s murderers. If you want to know what a real murder investigation looks like from a real cop’s point-of-view, this is the book for you.
West Cork is a podcast series offered by Audible. The body of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French filmmaker, was found on the road in front of her house in County Cork, Ireland, her head bashed in. The podcast chronicles an investigation into her murder by husband and wife journalists, Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde. This book is a rare opportunity for you to see inside a botched police case, to hear the voice of the suspect, the witnesses, and the loved ones left behind and the police, and to consider the evidence for yourself.
For the crime fiction writer, there are several reasons to give West Cork a listen. It is primer of how bad police procedure can botch a prosecution. There is also some truly great lawyering. In one clip from one of the trials, an attorney cross-examines Bailey in the deadliest witness examinations I’ve ever heard because the lawyer is so very nice. The interviews and witness testimony provide opportunities to hear the voices of two overly helpful witnesses who turn out to be unreliable and it is a rare opportunity to hear how the accused’s voice when he admits some things, denies other things and changes his story.
Finally: The Staircase, Netflix a documentary which follows Michael Peterson through his arrest, trial, appeals, and ultimate plea deal involving the death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.
The documentary presents several interesting questions: The prosecution was rotten with misconduct. If Michael Peterson was guilty, why did the prosecution have to cheat? Peterson had enough money to pay for the best defense money could buy. Is justice for sale? Finally, did the possibility of media rights influence Peterson?
As his defense attorney stated, everyone wants to know what the truth is because this is a murder mystery, and everyone loves a mystery, but the truth does not always leave evidence behind. For the fiction crime writer, this series is an excellent study of flawed characters, motive, plot twists, the justice system and how the camera’s intrusion influences the story.
Mysteristas, do you have any favorite true crime books, movies or series? Tell us in the comments what makes them so good.