I doubt most people would have been familiar with the relatively unremarkable murder of a Baltimore high school student by her ex-boyfriend in 1999. Until Serial started a couple of months ago. Similarly, you might never have heard of Richard Hickock, Perry Smith or some murder in Kansas. Until Truman Capote. Just as he popularised true crime by making it as exciting as fiction, Sarah Koenig has done the genre a favour by making it a bit more listener-friendly. Now one and a half million are tuning in and Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed are on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
The story goes as follows. While Koenig was a journalist on the Baltimore Sun, she investigated the incompetence of a certain prosecutor Cristina Gutierrez. Koenig - now a producer on This American Life, a popular show on NPR - was subsequently approached by a friend of the Syed family, whose son Adnan had been represented by Gutierrez and had ended up with a life sentence for the murder of his ex girlfriend. Koenig agreed to cast an eye over the case but soon became intrigued. Serial follows the progress of her investigation; each episode is aired only two weeks behind real-time.
She interviews Adnan regularly, talks to his family, his friends and tries to piece together what happened when a eighteen-year-old girl was strangled and left in a wood. Things don't add up. Testimonies contradict, perhaps unsurprisingly, given a decade has intervened, but they didn't even tally up in the first place. It is not so much the investigation into the possibility of one man's innocence - and presumably another's guilt - but also about Koenig's journey as she questions the facts, responds to the public reactions and wrestles with the possibility that the man befriended behind bars might effectively be a psychopath.
But while Capote was careful to keep himself out of his account for credibility, Koenig is ever present for authenticity. In the first episode, she's at pains to show us how little witnesses remember, how subjective things are. She asks various friends if they recall a certain day six weeks before. No one is sure but some are more prepared than others to make assumptions. Memories are frescoes of the truth: what they remember; what they decide to omit; and what they feel is important. Here, her version is presented as one interpretation.
Koenig's relaxed narrative is chatty, informal, confiding - a style that blogging has rendered ubiquitous. On radio it just about manages to come across as unaffected. She explains intricate information about phone signals and timings clearly, calling upon experts and witnesses to support her hypotheses. Capote manipulated the reader by what he chose to tell, Koenig does it with the force of her personality. Blame social media, the immediateness of it all, the ease with which journalists can be held to account, but while Capote simply used to make things up (the last scene of officer Dewey at the Clutter family's grave), now Koenig is forced to leave things out. Sensibly, Jay, the prosecution's primary witness, and the Lee family don't want to be involved; so it feels curiously one-sided.
After the five first episodes, the relaxed pace starts to lag. Especially given we're unsure if the show will end with a payoff. If Koenig thinks Syed is innocent, will that ending feel too easy? If he's guilty, what was the use of raking up the past? At least Capote waited till the guys had been executed before he sealed their fate.
Adnan Syed is still alive in prison. Online forums are buzzing with theories as people turn into amateur detectives, eager to solve the mystery before Koenig does. For the record, a friend's sister – she's a policewoman – thinks he did it. Syed is articulate, polite, funny and charming - even Koenig, in an echo of Capote, risks falling under his spell. But could he be guilty? Is it fair that Hae Min Lee's teenage diaries are being read out again for public consumption? And could we be turning a murderer into a celebrity? Now listeners are being encouraged to donate towards the second series as if it were popular entertainment.
Even the 80 year-old Charles Manson managed to get hitched in prison. Syed is only 34. He still has a long time left inside; the chances of his appeal in January being successful are slim. And this is neither punishment nor rehabilitation. That said, I'll be gripped till the very last show to see how Koenig wraps it up. It's not so much a whodunnit but a how-will-she-do-it.