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The Serial serial

James Cary


What were you doing 15 years ago? More specifically, what were you doing on January 13th 1999? Okay, let's make this a bit easier. What were you doing 30 days ago? Between 2.30 and 4pm? Where exactly were you and who can verify that? You'll need to know the answer to this because if you don't, you could spend decades in jail.

A pupil at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County called Adnan Syed found himself in this very situation. A month after his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, went missing, he was questioned by the police. He didn't know where he was at the crucial time. A 'friend' called Jay was able to fill in the gaps. Adnan, he claimed, had murdered Hae Min Lee and asked him for help in disposing of the body.

Where had Adnan been after school 30 days earlier? He reckoned he might have been to the library. Maybe? Security cameras only kept footage for a week so he couldn't prove it. Did he attend sports practice at 4pm? The coach couldn't be sure. Probably? Adnan was vague. But Jay was adamant. Adnan Syed, a popular pupil and one time junior-prom prince, had committed the murder, was convicted and is still in jail.

It seems like a just a regular murder case. And in many ways, it is. But that's what makes it so compelling for those of us listening to a new podcast called Serial which is topping the podcast charts in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia. It's a spin-off from This American Life, a show that I regularly describe to friends as 'The Greatest Radio Show in the World'. The podcast is now so popular it has, in itself, become a news story and spawned a podcast from Slate discussing the Serial podcast.

Everyone loves a whodunnit. Although the case of Adnan Syed is not an Agatha Christie whodunnit where passive-aggressive friends and relatives stand around a library being accused until the real murderer is revealed. (You know: a couple turn out to be brother and sister, which changes everything and makes sense of apparent inconsistencies. The villain then confesses to their real motive and says they'd do it all again while being led away by an honest, competent copper. They'll be going to jail for a lo-o-ong time.) We never see the trial of those whodunnit people. We just assume that Justice continues Her majestic course of Truth, Righteousness and Retribution (often despite a failure in police work, and the case being solved by an amateur like Marple, Holmes or Creek).

But we know that it's not that simple. Even though we've been conditioned by thousands of hours of crime dramas and police procedurals that they get them in the end.

In reality, they often do not get them in the end. In reality, those who should be gotten often get off. And those who should not be gotten are left to rot in prison.

Those crucial bits of CSI-type evidence are sometimes inadmissible, or less compelling than thought, or confusing to a jury, or omitted completely. In 1999, security footage was patchy - and probably still is. Phone records that reveal positions based on phonemasts don't tell the whole story of someone's movements.

There is doubt because this not quite a whodunnit. It's a real whodunnit. In fact, someone was convicted so we know whodunnit. But did they do it? This is a whoreallydunnit. The appeal here is that as the story unfolds, our craving for justice is being piqued since there's a realistic chance that justice has not been done, might not be done and that we will have no way of knowing for sure either way whoreallydunnit.

The presenter and producer, Sarah Koenig, seems to be realising that there may be no satisfactory conclusion to this story. Forbes magazine says that, 'There's a lot of pressure on Koenig and her team to uncover something meaningful and actionable before the season is over.' But surely this is to misunderstand what's interesting about this case? This case is real. Real life doesn't normally have a 'meaningful and actionable' finale.

The Bible is much more realistic about how good and evil. Bad things happen to good people (Jesus, Job et al). Good things happen to awful people (Jacob, Jonah et al). We know that this is not how things should be. We long for justice. We are hard-wired for it. And we will get it. Eventually. In the meantime, we just have to wait. And freak out when a podcast confirms that life is complicated.