What Can True Crime Offer Us?

What Can True Crime Offer Us?

Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You tries to understand popular culture’s fixation on two lurid things: podcasts and murders.


Billed as a literary exploration of the true-crime phenomenon, Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You centers on Bodie Kane, an adjunct film professor and middle-aged podcaster. In 2018, Bodie returns to teach at her alma mater, an elite New Hampshire boarding school called Granby. And she comes back with a lot of baggage—she was an unpopular and poor Midwestern transplant in the land of ski chalets and crew teams. She’s also returning to a school that was, in her time there, marred by the murder of the beautiful, talented 17-year-old Thalia Keith, Bodie’s brief acquaintance and former roommate.

The person convicted for Thalia’s murder was Omar Evans, a former athletic trainer at Granby and the only Black employee of the school. Omar’s trace DNA was found on the swimsuit that Thalia was wearing when her body was discovered in the gym, but other than that, the evidence against him appears circumstantial, supported mainly by interviews with traumatized students repeating gossip and hearsay. As a result, the story of the crime and its aftermath has developed a cult following, including a gaggle of YouTubers with alternate theories accusing various teachers, a jealous friend, a boyfriend, and others orbiting the grisly act. The obsession over Thalia’s murder, which happened 21 years before the start of the novel, makes sense: A pretty, young white woman who has been violently killed is the animating force of many true-crime tales. Bodie and her students are equally obsessed—they find new evidence and start a podcast that opens up the case again.

The premise of I Have Some Questions for You is quite au courant: a critique of the true-crime obsession and its inherent voyeurism, refracted through everyone’s new favorite storytelling device, the podcast. And the true-crime podcast in particular has a long history of creating obsessive listeners. From Serial to My Favorite Murder, what seems to make true crime appealing is how its narratives prey on our desire for security, our suspicions of the world around us. The genre confirms our most paranoid fears: For a woman, already nervous to walk around alone at night, listening to true crime offers even more proof that the world is bad and violent and out to get you. And true crime does deserve a critique: Its obsession with the individual crime can at times glorify the police and deny the structural roots of the underlying problems, including misogyny, racism, and the carceral state. So there’s something deeply unsettling about a vast media empire of podcasts about dead girls, whose rapt listeners come to identify with a crime that has nothing to do with them at all. But if the ethics of true crime are on trial in Makkai’s novel, it’s not clear whether it’s the public consumption of violence as content that is so suspect, or whether the author merely thinks the genre needs an intellectual makeover.

Early in I Have Some Questions for You, Britt, a student who wants to make a podcast about Thalia’s death, asks Bodie whether she, as a white woman, is the right person to do it, especially given that a Black man was convicted for the murder. Would it be insensitive? Appropriative? Yet Bodie greenlights the project, because she trusts that Britt’s concerns are a sign that she will do it “responsibly.” What are we supposed to make of this? Is Bodie’s awareness that she’s “talking Britt into it” enough to critique the actual ethical stakes of this project? After all, Bodie’s answer to her student is appealing: If you care enough to ask, then of course you care enough to do it responsibly. Just asking the right questions about true crime may be one antidote to its ills, but if Britt is an exception here, we are not. Here we are, glued to a novel that circles around a grisly death (depicting it several times, in fact, from the perspective of different murderers), dying to see what happens.

Of course, Bodie isn’t excluded from the novel’s ambivalent attitude toward true crime either, and her fixation with the murder is not neutral—she recognizes her role in perpetuating the genre’s obsessive qualities. Bodie wonders if she’s deliberately pushing her students to think about Thalia’s death, if she’s bringing it up constantly for a reason. She remarks to us, “Let’s pause and acknowledge that in my twenty-four hours at Granby, I’d managed to have three separate conversations about Thalia Keith…. If Thalia was following me around, it was in the way bees follow someone who happens to have slathered their hands in honey.” Bodie narrates all of this to us (and to a “you” who turns out to be her and Thalia’s beloved music teacher, a man overlooked as a suspect), but we start to wonder whether she protests too much.

Bodie’s self-righteous position becomes clearer in contrast to Dane Rubra, an amateur sleuth and YouTube sensation whose obsession with Thalia’s story, we are given to understand, is creepy. Unlike Bodie, Dane has no actual connection to Thalia or this boarding school. Bodie opines that “Dane Rubra looked…like he hadn’t seen the sun or eaten a vegetable or gotten laid in a decade.” Yet this avatar of the undesirable is doing exactly what Bodie’s students end up doing: making content that appeals to an audience hungry for unsolved cases. Bodie reads his interest in Thalia as something lurid, commenting on one of his videos, “Thalia would never have dated you.” Bodie thinks that she’s better than this, that she and her podcasting students are thoughtful and smart. Their goal is to get Omar acquitted; Dane’s goal is to exploit the interest in a long-dead teenager. But we readers are pushed to understand that they are essentially the same: two people fixated on Thalia’s murder not for what it is but for what it offers to them.

Who owns the story of Thalia’s murder is an open question. It’s not Bodie or Dane; it’s not Thalia’s family; it’s not even Omar Evans, who remains out of sight throughout the novel. He’s an easy figure for Bodie’s guilt: Back at Granby, she realizes that her hazy teenage testimony alluded to Thalia being on drugs, which implicated Omar, but we never get his perspective. It’s only when Omar gets attacked in prison that Bodie’s time at Granby is intercut with parenthetical descriptions of what’s happening to him at the very same moment. This underscores the contrast between Bodie’s leisurely thinking about the case and the real, lived experience of incarceration that Omar is enduring—the actual stakes of her pet project. On the page, this scene is unfortunately clunky, but it helps us understand that real lives are impacted by this investigation. For all of Bodie’s sleuthing, it’s Omar whose life is truly defined by the murder.

But Bodie’s reconsideration of Thalia’s death—and Omar’s conviction—can only ever offer her clarity on herself. This seems to be the crux of Makkai’s critique of true crime. There are a few more plot contrivances that unfold (new evidence emerges for the trial! Overlooked side characters turn out to be crucial witnesses!), but the central drama for both the true-crime consumer and the true-crime author is not exactly the crime itself but what that crime means to them. That one girl’s death can be the occasion to return to your own past life and self is a critique with a hole in its center. Indeed, true crime is a genre that often asks its consumers to look inward, but does re-creating that same emotional response do enough to show its limits?

I Have Some Questions for You aims to be the great true-crime novel, and outside of its formal missteps, it succeeds in its implication of the reader as voyeur. We devour the story of Thalia, anxious to find out what happened to her; we, like Bodie, carry on in pursuit of the truth despite the desires of others. Reopening the case becomes a source of pain: Thalia’s family is upset; Omar’s hopes are raised for nothing; former Granby students are forced to relive their traumatic experiences. And yet we do want the case reopened; we want to know who did it; and we want justice to be meted out. By the end of the novel, we have become like Bodie, asking ourselves if it’s OK to love reading about a murdered girl, staying up late into the night wondering who killed her and what the motive was. We rehearse the same pat answers: If we care enough to ask the question, we can’t be doing anything so wrong.

The novel sweeps us up in the fervor to figure out the case, but it sidesteps the larger questions. In the end, we don’t really know who did it. Near the start of this ordeal, Bodie reflects that maybe Thalia’s murder is “the one we got wrong. Maybe it was the one we all, collectively, each bearing only the weight of a feather, got wrong.” The “we” here suggests that the blame is not just on one person but on several—the teenagers who testified, the older teacher who seduced Thalia, the best friend who never came forward with evidence, even Bodie herself. This sense of collective responsibility is the kind of nuance that doesn’t often emerge from the true-crime content mills. In the world of I Have Some Questions for You, however, there’s an insistent hope that the truth still matters, even when it’s complicated—that the right thing might happen despite the near-impossibility of justice in our society.

What can true crime offer us? In the end, just a gripping story, a long novel (or long-form nonfiction podcast) that provides more questions than answers. Like Bodie, our consuming interest only points us back to ourselves, without ever really forcing us to evaluate our ethical commitments, our own desire to know.

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