Are the tattlers just trying to save their own skins? Understanding how police and the justice system work

Have you tuned in to Serial? It’s a 12-part spinoff of the acclaimed NPR series This American Life that has captured the imagination of listeners. The radio show is available, free, via computer download (these things are dubbed “podcasts” by people who need to rename seasoned technology so that everything old is new again).

It’s being called the most popular podcast ever made.

Back in 1999, a Maryland high school student named Hae Min Lee was found buried in a park. Her ex, also a high school student, was convicted of the murder. Sixteen years later, he still maintains his innocence.

Serial is reporter Sarah Koenig’s re-investigation of the crime. Whodunit?

Could Adnan Syed be innocent? And what about his friend, “Jay” (only identified by first name), who testified that he helped Adnan bury the body…?

Did Adnan do it, or did Jay pull a fast one on the police and the courts?

“Serial presents detective interviews and excerpts of the trial, along with new interviews Koenig conducted with Syed, who spoke with her by phone from prison. Koenig guides the audience through the story, uncovering information that apparently neither the defense nor the prosecution had been aware of at the time of the trial,” notes NPR.

You can find the complete series at

These sorts of investigations can be immensely upsetting: “Koenig also says she wasn’t trying to rouse painful memories for those involved in the story — she was trying to get to the bottom of a case that seemed to have holes in it.”

True crime shows us how the police and the justice system work. Have they done a good job? What is the difference between justice and the law? Can we accept that there are times when we may not ever know the complete truth?

How can we trust an accomplice who turns state’s evidence, when they may be simply saving their own skin?

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account Of A Multiple Murder And Its Consequences (1966/1994) may well be the best modern true-crime novel ever published. It’s said that 8,000 pages of research notes went into it, and it was written by an accomplished story-teller of great intellect.

Two men are eventually convicted of the brutal murder of an entire family in an American town. This is the story of their crime, the investigation that led to their capture, and why they did it (if such a question can ever be truly answered).

Open In Cold Blood to any page and you’ll be astonished by the writing:

“Junk,” the landlady said. “Nothing but trash.”
True, it was valueless stuff even to a clue-hungry detective. Still, Nye was glad to have seen it; each item – the palliatives for sore gums, the greasy Honolulu pillow – gave him a clearer impression of the owner and his lonely, mean life.

Cruel Heart: A True Story Of Murder In Kentucky (by William Van Meter, 2009) looks into the horrific murder of a small-town university student in 2003. Again, two men are arrested. One immediately blamed the other, receiving a plea deal in exchange for his accusations.

The book The Class Project: How To Kill A Mother (by Bob Mitchell, 2008), is the story of two sisters, teenagers, who drugged and drowned their mother in a bathtub in Mississauga in 2003. Their mother was too strict, and so apparently deserved it.

The pair also told their friends about the plan, but no one tried to stop them. “Everybody talks about killing their parents,” said one schoolmate. So they weren’t believed.

The Giant Book Of True Crime (by Colin Wilson, 1990/2006) is a British best-of, from the crimes of the ancient Romans (Tiberius, Caligula) to pirates and Persian assassins. There’s a lot of academic analysis here, mixed in with the stories of Jack the Ripper, the Lindbergh baby, and Charles Manson. Are we as a species doomed to violence?

All these books can be found filed at 364.15 in the Lennoxville Library’s non-fiction section, and we also have 10 books (eight in English and two in French) by Ann Rule, a former Seattle police officer and a prolific and very popular true-crime writer.

Here’s one more suggestion. It’s Mop Men: Inside The World Of Crime Scene Cleaners (2004/2008). This is a graphic and upsetting book for the unprepared, a profile of American Neal Smither and his cleaning company, full of vicious humour and vile judgement. Perhaps it’s the only way Smither and his employees can cope with the horrific things they see: “Of course, if he really did not care, he wouldn’t bother saying he didn’t. Nor would he – at a particularly gruesome scene – take the time and energy to hate the coward and ‘freak’ who killed himself here.”

The author, Alan Emmins, is suddenly living with murders, suicides, and awful accidents. He is shell-shocked, both by Neal Smither, and by what he sees. And thank goodness for that.

You can maintain a clinical eye, but still feel for those around you.

– Eleanor Brown, January 30, 2015

About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au Click on the above to get to our website!
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