How to Become a Citizen Sleuth

Review of Chase Darkness with Me by Billy Jensen

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Gone are the days when Dateline and Forensic Files were the mainstays for murderinos (the affectionate name given to fans of the podcast My Favorite Murder) seeking details on infamous or puzzling cases. True crime podcasts now routinely place in the top ten of Apple’s podcast chart and whether you’re flipping through channels on basic cable, tuning into HBO, or searching Netflix, true crime is sure to be one, if not more, of the offerings. Now, the problem is not seeking out true crime stories but discerning which ones to spend time consuming when faced with a plethora of choices.

Enter Billy Jensen. He spent much of his journalism career writing about true crime, specifically unsolved cases. In recent years, he’s gained attention for helping to finish Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about the Golden State Killer who was famously identified and arrested just months after the book’s release in 2018. McNamara died unexpectedly while writing the book and Jensen worked with a collaborator to piece together drafts and write new material as well, focusing on techniques like familial DNA searches and geoprofiling that McNamara was using to help solve the case. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is already a true crime classic not only because of McNamara’s stellar writing but also because the techniques she advocated for were actually used to identify the suspect after decades of searching. I highly recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (although it is disturbing and, full disclosure, it did give me nightmares).

So, back to Billy Jensen. If his involvement with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark fails to convince you of his pedigree, let me explain what distinguishes his new book from other true crime releases. While Jensen’s work on both the Golden State Killer case and McNamara’s book about it are woven throughout his true crime memoir, Chase Darkness with Me, he focuses on a number of cases he worked (and sometimes solved) using targeted ads on social media platforms to solicit witnesses and tips leading to suspects. The majority of these are cases are likely unknown to readers since most of them rarely received media attention outside of the area where they occurred. Yet, Jensen clearly outlines the stakes for the families and communities impacted by each crime, making each compelling. Although he covers a large number of cases, his explanations of the details make them unique enough to remain distinct rather than blurring together. In addition, Jensen explains how his techniques have actually solved crimes and includes an addendum explaining best practices for those who want to be become citizen sleuths, as he refers to them.

Jensen’s years as an investigative journalist have honed his prose into concise yet informative sentences. Yet because this book is at least partially a memoir, the crimes and investigations are always filtered through Jensen’s perspective and that prevents the book from feeling too clinical or like a mere list of facts. Rather, he weaves stories about his own life into the book in ways that feel organic instead of forced, providing brief respites from the crimes themselves. Much of his interest in true crime came from his father, and those anecdotes are particularly evocative in placing the reader within Jensen’s point of view.

I knew Jensen from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and the podcast he currently co-hosts with retired investigator Paul Holes, The Murder Squad, but this new book and his work on citizen sleuthing is sure to establish his important role in the future of true crime. Jensen’s strong writing skills and compassion for everyone affected by these crimes are striking. Chase Darkness with Me is a page turner that asks how citizens can harness technology to help chip away at the ever-growing backlog of unsolved cases in America. True crime fanatics and people interested in the future of criminal investigation should seek out Chase Darkness with Me.

Back to School Fears Legitimized: Review of The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

I fan girl hard for Lisa Lutz. Reading her Spellman Files series (about a family of private detectives who are always tailing or phone tapping at least one other family member) was a treat I reserved for special reading occasions, like after I finished an onerous task, and I put off reading the final novel in the series because I did not want it to end. In fact, I adore Lutz’s work so much that she’s one of the writers whose names I frequently search on bookselling websites, social media, and her own author website so as to know exactly when her next novel will be released. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting the release of her most recent novel, The Swallows.

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For fellow Lutzites (Lutzians? Lutz Loons?), the archetypes of her previous novels are still present in her new novel: dysfunctional parents, witty women who somehow still don’t have their life put together, precocious teen girls who are almost too smart for their own good, and lovable male allies who prove to be dependable sidekicks for the female protagonists. While the characters feel consistent with others in Lutz’s fictional universe, the story itself is quite a bit darker than the beloved Spellman series.

In The Swallows, set at Stonebridge (a less than prestigious boarding school in Vermont), Lutz depicts a level of scumbaggery heretofore unseen in her other works. The novel’s conflicts center on a series of sexual scandals (some at other schools and in the past as well as at Stonebridge) that, once uncovered, spiral into tragic and disturbing consequences for everyone involved.

Set in 2009, The Swallows focuses on a pre-#MeToo era but one which is no less filled with predators and prey as well as drastically inequal power dynamics. Smartly, Lutz does not divide the heroes and villains neatly along gender lines nor between faculty/staff and students. The spiral of abuse and retaliation becomes increasingly messy as more about the scandals are uncovered. As a former teacher, I found the corrupt and enabling school administration and teachers extremely unsettling (and that is due to Lutz’s skill in depicting these characters and showing their flaws). This is not a feel-good story and it is to Lutz’s credit that it is not. In fact, the overarching metaphor for the book is one of war with section titles such as “Allies,” “The Army,” and quotes from the likes of Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu prefacing each section. Ultimately, I read the book not as offering solutions to the abuses it documents but as showing what happens when people try to dismantle dehumanizing systems.

Overall, I thought Lutz’s portrayal of the abuse and its intersections with gender was thoughtful and refrained from using stereotypes. However, the book is almost purely heteronormative in the way it documents sexual relationships. I wish Lutz had included LBGTQ+ characters or just addressed these relationships as some part of the school’s social scene. It would have added a different perspective on so many of the male-female heterosexual conflicts and been more realistic for a 2009 high school. Still, readers interested in gender and power dynamics, specifically how they impact people long before they reach the workplace, will find a lot to think about in this novel.

So, if you’re still not sure whether or not to read The Swallows, I suspect the Netflix headings for it would be something along the lines of: Boarding School Capers, Strong Female Leads (way to turn something nice into something weird, Netflix), and Feminist YA. Since the assorted algorithms of Amazon, Spotify, et al, have utterly ruined me, I tend to sort books in a similar way (especially since I sometimes cluster read books in a particular genre over time). Read The Swallows if you liked: any of Lutz’s previous novels, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. (Or, if you haven’t read these other books already, go ahead and check them out. I enjoyed all of them!)

Writing Your First College Paper, Part III

This is the third in a series of posts about writing your first college paper. Look back at the last two posts for some tips on getting into the right mindset and making a plan for your writing.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

As a college student, you likely have a number of resources at your disposal. Do not be afraid to use them. Resources like these are the reason you pay tuition. If one of the resources you try is not helpful, try another one. In fact, by trying different resources you will find which ones work best for you and that will be a great advantage not just for this paper but for later ones as well.

While getting feedback from a relative or roommate is okay, keep in mind a couple of things. First, you paper is not their responsibility. Second, they may have different expectations than your instructor for competent, college-level writing. Finally, they have not been in class with you learning the material that you are applying in this paper. It may work better to have a relative or roommate read a more polished version after you get some feedback from your instructor or a tutor.

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Consider attending your instructor’s office hours.

Most, if not all, college instructors hold office hours. These are times set aside in their schedule specifically to meet with students. Where and when your instructor holds office hours is often on the front page of the syllabus. (Please, please, check the syllabus before emailing your instructor. You will learn to be more resourceful as a student and your instructor will greatly appreciate that you took the time to use the document he or she spent hours preparing for just this kind of occasion.) Most instructors expect that students will drop in during designated office hour times. However, if it is the day before your paper is due (the day everyone realizes they need help with the assignment) it might be worth checking ahead of time or making an appointment (if your instructor allows that) to avoid long wait times.

If your paper is for a composition or writing-focused course, your instructor may hold conferences. Take advantage of this opportunity to see how your instructor evaluates your work before you turn it in for a grade. Your instructor may ask you to prepare some pre-writing (such as an outline) or a portion of a draft to discuss at your conference. If there is no requirement about what to bring to the conference, at least come prepared with two to three specific questions about the assignment or your writing. This shows your instructor that you are taking the assignment seriously (metaphorical bonus points!) and will help make your conference more productive. A conference is precious one-on-one time with the person judging your work so think about what kind of help you need before you are seated in your instructor’s office, staring awkwardly at him or her and wondering what to say.

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Take advantage of any writing centers and/or tutors your school may provide.

Many colleges and universities staff writing centers with tutors who provide free feedback and assistance with many kinds of writing assignments. Here again, a quick look through your class syllabus or search of your school’s website will tell you if, where, and when you have access to this kind of help.

Both of the options above (office hours and writing center tutoring) can be utilized at any stage of the writing process. If you are having trouble getting started or even understanding what the assignment asks you to do, do not hesitate to get help earlier rather than later.

Focus on doing good work, not just earning the grade you want.

Think back to my first piece of advice: maintain perspective. Worry more about doing quality work than about the number or letter grade you want to achieve. You cannot control the number/letter your instructor assigns your paper. However, you can control the effort you put into writing the paper. Looking back through class materials, the assignment sheet, and a grading rubric (if one is provided) as you finalize your paper can help you create high quality work.

As part of maintaining perspective, you could also look back at your syllabus to remind yourself of how much this paper contributes to your overall grade in the course. Similarly, check the syllabus to see if your instructor has a revision policy that allows you to correct graded work for an improved grade. Knowing that there is a chance to improve some grades down the road may remove a bit of the pressure as you are drafting.

Happy writing!

Writing Your First Paper in College, Part II

This is the second in a series of posts about writing your first college paper. Look back at the last post for some tips on getting into the right mindset before writing.

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Make a plan for doing the work.

Once you understand what the assignment sheet asks you to do, select specific dates and times for when you will do the work that is necessary for finishing this paper. Yeah, unfortunately none of the spells you learned reading Harry Potter will help you with this stage of the writing process. Sometimes there is no replacement for sitting down and getting to work. As a recovering procrastinator myself, I will attest that writing an entire paper the night before it is due is not the way to go. If you hit a major roadblock, you have left yourself no time to ask more questions or get help from an instructor or Writing Center. As an instructor, I have seen many students struggle to manage their time. Honestly, most adults struggle with time management too. It is a hard skill to master but do not let that stop you. Make a schedule and do your best to stick to it. A planner, either digital or physical, can be a great tool for doing this. Plus, getting a physical planner is a good excuse to buy pens, highlighters, stickers, etc. to help keep yourself organized. Yes, Virginia, you do get extra points for color coding. If you find that your schedule is not working, revise it or make a completely new one and try again. A schedule puts you in control of the process and can help calm nerves by breaking a large project into smaller steps.

Think of writing like flexing a muscle.

Approach writing the same way you would establish any other habit: positive experiences for moderate amounts of time. Think about your writing as though it is a muscle you want to strengthen. If you write for short periods of time on a regular basis, you are making it a part of your routine and are less likely to become overly frustrated. Keep your writing spurts to twenty minutes to one hour. This way you are flexing your writing muscle, not exercising it to the point of exhaustion. Just like going to the gym or taking an exercise class, you need to respect your own limits. By not working to the point of burnout it is more likely that you will return to work on the assignment more rejuvenated after a break rather than putting it off indefinitely to scroll social media, binge a new show, or discover a new hobby you simply must explore rather than do your writing. Similarly, if you struggle with writing in general or suffer from writer’s block, shorter writing sessions can make those issues more manageable so that you are not staring at the blinking cursor on your computer screen for hours on end. (She says, staring at the blinking cursor on her screen. Let us agree that the blinking cursor is an evil demon and does not like any of us.)

Next time I will talk about resources for getting feedback on your writing and how to prepare for receiving a grade for the paper.

Writing Your First Paper in College

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Writing of many kinds can be stress provoking. Finding yourself doing a chore you normally loathe when there is a deadline on the academic horizon? Putting off starting on the project for as long as possible? Hating every word you have written or, worse, unable to commit to anything because you preemptively hate it? It might be helpful to reevaluate your writing routine. While writing requires many technical and analytical skills, it is also experiential; meaning the way you think and feel about your personal writing, as well as the processes of preparing for and actually doing it, can have a big impact on the writing itself. Do not get too worried, though. You do not need to exorcise your computer or burn sage to smudge your writing space.

Having been a college freshman myself and having taught writing to college freshmen for a decade, I can sympathize with the anxieties of completing your first college writing assignment. Today begins a series of posts with strategies for attacking your first college assignment (or any daunting writing project).

Maintain perspective.

First, take a breath and maintain perspective on this task. This is one paper in a long semester in your multi-year college career in your wondrous and beautiful life. This one paper will make your cumulative college experience neither a success or a failure. It is one moment of a long adventure. While all of these moments are important, remember not to allot more stress than is due for only one moment.

Read your assignment sheet.

You might be thinking you have already done this. You might be thinking, “we read through the assignment in class, so I’ve got the gist of it.” That is a great first step but only that, a first step. There is likely more detail on the assignment sheet than what you were able to cover in class. Plus, your assignment is likely due days and even weeks after you discuss it in class. You are doing yourself a disservice if you are relying on a weeks-old memory of very detailed instructions for a formal, college-level paper. Can you remember what you ate for dinner three weeks ago? If so, I’m impressed. If not, you should re-read your assignment sheet, probably more than once and preferably immediately before you sit down to brainstorm, draft, and edit the paper.

Next time, I will talk about how to make a plan to start (and ultimately finish) your writing project. In the meantime, add a comment or email me if you have other questions about your writing. Or, share a memory of writing your first college paper (if only to show everyone that you survived it!).

Desperately Seeking Agatha Christie

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Ordeal by Innocence is the third in a series of Agatha Christie adaptations written by Sarah Phelps (preceded by the deliciously campy And Then There Were None and the darkly disturbing Witness for the Prosecution). I so enjoyed both of Phelps’ previous takes on Christie that I marked the release date for Ordeal by Innocence in my calendar! (Fear not, dear reader, I stalk only my favorite pop culture commodities). Unfortunately, this latest adaptation did not live up to the previous two.

The story unfolds in three hour-long episodes and, due to the large number of characters, much of the first episode gets eaten up by exposition and replaying the crime itself. By the second episode, it’s clear that the victim (and mother to five adopted children), Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor), was almost universally despised by her family but the reasons why only become clear in the final episode. Phelps uses a large number of flashbacks, beginning with short snippets of scenes that gradually lengthen as we learn more about the Argylls, but which tend to make the pacing of the storytelling quite choppy and frustrating since the early flashbacks don’t contribute much knowledge about the murder or the characters. In fact, the flashbacks return repeatedly to the same scenes, extending them only briefly each time. Season one of How to Get Away with Murder used a similar tactic and I found it tedious then as well. It’s difficult to strike that happy compromise where you repeat enough information so that the audience can follow the chronology of the story without becoming bored of the same series of shots showing the discovery of the victim’s body, etc. as they are replayed.

While I enjoyed the dark tone Phelps used in adapting And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution (which was much more ominous than the majority of the Poirot and Miss Marple series found on PBS), Ordeal by Innocence felt far too melodramatic for my taste (and I count myself as a fan of Days of Our Lives). Perhaps the issue isn’t that Phelps uses melodrama (the story’s about a murder and a disintegrating family, after all) but that there’s no relief from the melodramatic tone and it becomes tiring well before we reach the plot’s climax.

With all of those criticisms in mind, I thought the actors gave strong performances given the script and tone of the overall project. One of the central roles was recast and reshot after Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick was accused of sexual assault. It’s impossible to say exactly how that may have impacted the final product but I applaud the cast and crew’s efforts to finish the film and release it under such stressful circumstances. The overall standout for me was Morven Christie, probably best known to American audiences as the charming Amanda Hopkins from Grantchester. Here in Ordeal by Innocence, she completely disappears into the role of Kirsten Lindstrom, the largely taciturn housekeeper. Christie does stellar work even with relatively few lines and some of her scenes without any dialogue are the most gripping of the entire project. The cast rounds itself out with the charming Bill Nighy, Anthony Boyle (currently starring in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway), the delightful Matthew Goode (here playing a nasty, vile character that proves Goode is best when he goes bad), and Poldark’s always engaging Eleanor Tomlinson. Ordeal by Innocence is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (not just for two-day shipping!).

Sarah Phelps’ next Christie adaptation is The ABC Murders (one of my absolute favorites!) starring . . . (you may need to take a seat) John Malkovich. Hmmm. So we’ve gone from David Suchet as Poirot (aka the one and only Poirot in my mind) to a Giant Mustache (Kenneth Branagh) impersonating as Poirot in the most recent Murder on the Orient Express film to John Malkovich. It may be time to go back to the bookshelf rather than the film or tv screen to satisfy your Agatha Christie-sized craving. In fact, Sophie Hannah has written several new Poirot mysteries in recent years and the latest, The Mystery of Three Quarters, is out now!

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Shady Women Doing Shady Things

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Following the popularity of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a new genre has emerged which I like to think of as Shady Women Doing Shady Things. It seems that every time I head to a bookstore (increasingly rarely as there are so few left) or wander through my local big box store’s book aisle there’s a new book being blurbed as the latest Gone Girl.

What are some of the traits needed to label something as the newest Gone Girl?

  • How fast can you turn the pages? Hopefully fairly quickly because I would argue that’s the primary factor needed to GoneGirl-ify something. The story needs to barrel onward and keep the reader interested, preferably to the point that you don’t want to put down the book.
  • As per many mysteries/thrillers, readers crave sinister characters (ideally both men and women but just one or the other will suffice).
  • Many thrillers of this genre use the tired stereotype of the “desperate single woman” (sigh . . . and deep breath everyone). Here’s where things can start to feel a little bit . . . icky. Why does the single woman have to be on the receiving end of violence so often? What does it say about readers that we often enjoy these kinds of stories, collectively buying millions of copies and happily watching movie and TV adaptations galore? Why is the single woman in these stories so often consumed (to the point of obsession) with finding a partner? Or fixated on a past partner? Don’t despair just yet, though, because he stronger writers in the Shady Women genre use these pitfalls to potentially subvert them in new (and hopefully surprising) ways.
  • Perhaps most disturbingly, the Shady Women genre requires a woman placed in close proximity to peril (often with the killer/sinister character). On the one hand, I completely understand this trait. Part of crime fiction generally is experiencing danger vicariously through the fictional world. On the other hand, taken too far this interest in seeing women endangered can become . . . yucky, for lack of a better word. For me, the distinction lies in the skill of the writer and the tone he or she takes in depicting any crimes or encounters with sinister characters (much like the handling of the desperate single woman trope). There’s a difference between wallowing in the mental or physical torture of a female character with no greater purpose and depicting violence without losing its brutality or the consequences it brings to the victim and perpetrator.
  • The most successful examples of this genre add in at least one unreliable narrator to keep the reader questioning whether what she’s reading is accurate or not. The unreliability can come from memory loss, blackouts due to drinking, etc. (see The Girl on the Train), or just plain withholding information from the reader. Unlike Golden Age detective fiction which typically lays out all the information for the reader and allows you to follow the deductions of a Poirot, for example, the Shady Women genre typically makes it much harder to fully solve the mystery ahead of the book itself, enhancing the need to keep flipping those pages and, if done well, making the narrative resolution that much more satisfying when finally revealed.
  • Finally, chilling set pieces are a vital ingredient to create the eerie atmosphere of this genre. One of the things I most enjoyed when I read Gone Girl was the various locations where Flynn staged the action. Most frightening to me was an abandoned mall where people were running a black market. (Having read two of Ruth Ware’s novels, I can tell you that she excels at this as well. Her bachelorette party thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood features a glass house set in the middle of a forest where the occupants are on display to any and all passersby. Her most recent release, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, features a British estate that fans of Golden Age detective fiction will practically weep over.)

I love nothing more than a good mystery/thriller so I checked out two recent releases to see where the Shady Women genre currently stands.

Not That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser

Set in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Strawser’s novel is a fairly close relative of the Gone Girl tradition. Much like Gone Girl, Strawser initially uses gender stereotypes, in this case particularly  those surrounding mothers, to help color readers’ perceptions of her characters. The morning after a group of women socialize around a backyard fire pit, one of them goes missing along with her two children. While Gillian Flynn seems interested in the individual psychological pathologies of her characters, Strawser uses the mystery of the disappearance to explore domestic abuse, how it might appear to someone outside the abusive relationship, and the ethical responsibilities of someone who suspects domestic abuse. Strawser also plays with the trope of the desperate single woman (also used by Ware for In a Dark, Dark Wood). In the hands of a less thoughtful, less skilled writer, using these stereotypes could be insulting to readers. Luckily, Strawser’s characters are imbued with specificity and motivated by their emotions in a way that feels purposeful for the character and not a mechanized plot device. Initially, I felt Strawser’s characterization of the “desperate single woman” was superficial but it improved throughout the novel’s second half. Strawser’s writing style is rarely lyrical and does not strive towards much more than conveying the ideas and dialogue necessary to the story. However, in a thriller such as Not That I Could Tell her approach gets the job done and maintains the reader’s focus on the novel’s central disappearance. Although I was not particularly surprised by the resolution to the central mystery, I enjoyed the red herrings along the way and was genuinely alarmed by the confrontation with the novel’s baddie.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware’s latest novel combines certain elements of the Gone Girl-style thriller with the characterization and logical puzzle of an Agatha Christie mystery, bridging multiple traditions. Harriet Westaway, an orphaned fortune teller working on the Brighton pier, receives a letter informing her that her grandmother Westaway has died, leaving her a bequest, and inviting her to Trepassen, her grandmother’s estate in Cornwall. Confident that her real grandmother died long ago, Hal initially dismisses this letter until a series of increasingly dangerous threats from a loan shark convince her to try and collect the fraudulent inheritance. I enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway so much that I immediately requested Ruth Ware’s other novels from the library. The last 200 pages or so were riveting to the point that I read them on the treadmill (or death machine as I fondly think of it). I truly could not put the book down until I had learned the mystery’s resolution. Unlike the unreliable narrators of so much of the Shady Women genre, here Ware plays fair with the reader by giving them all the pieces of the puzzle that the protagonist has at any given moment (and they actually do all fit together in the end). However, Ware also uses past diary entries interspersed with in the present-day action to give the flavor of the unreliable narration so common in Shady Women thrillers. Despite the seemingly cozy setting of a large estate in Cornwall, Trepassen is more dilapidated than charming and a Mrs. Danvers-esque character helps manifest the unsettling atmosphere Ware amplifies throughout the novel’s second half. Ware is a mystery writer to watch for the future as she uses the best of the Golden Age tradition mixed with contemporary trends that make her work exciting but also a (scary) pleasure to read!

Wait for a rainy day or, better yet, a dark and stormy night and then crack the spine on these thrillers.