It’s easy to be obsessed with Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial. It’s the addictive true crime story that delves into the murder of a young woman in 1999 and her boyfriend who claims innocence, even though he was convicted. Where the obsession comes through is that Koenig — and by virtue of listening, you — is exploring the case in what feels like real-time, coming up with motives, reasonable doubt, and possible alternate histories of why Adnan Syed may be innocent. The case is being appealed in January.
But sometimes Serial takes a week off (like Thanksgiving), and even though a season two is assured — and it’s a mystery as to what it may be — this tsunami of buzz is going through the various stages, bending around to “overrated.” There’s a mystery to how it will end, but will you be happy with it, whether Adnan is exonerated or not? We wanted to give you ten other stories searching for the truth — documentaries, books, television, Instagram, even a museum — that are worthy of your obsession and your detective work.
The Staircase, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004
A French miniseries, alternately known as Death on the Staircase, that ended up airing on the Sundance Channel in April 2005, The Staircase is a six-hour crime documentary that starts with a seemingly cut-and-dried case: a woman, drunk, fell down the stairs and died. Her husband, a successful novelist, called for help, only to become the prime suspect in what was now a murder investigation. It was the inspiration for Lifetime TV movie The Staircase Murders with The O.C.‘s Samaire Armstrong, based on the book A Perfect Husband, and there was a two-hour follow-up film that aired in 2013. All will serve your mounting obsession.
Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, 2011
A BBC anthology series that is inspired by The Twilight Zone and takes the ways that technology is making us inhuman as a theme, Black Mirror is an easy candidate for obsession due to the shifting natures of its stories. Every one you’re plunged into a different world, with different rules, and by the time you figure out just what’s going on, you’re understanding Brooker’s prescient points. Brilliant work that features a bunch of familiar faces like Domhnall Gleeson, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Toby Kebbell, and it’s finally available through Netflix streaming.
The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm Fatal Vision, Joe McGinnis A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris
If you are a journalist, it is a pretty good idea to think, “What would Janet Malcolm do?” She’s cited repeatedly in John Safran’s excellent new God’ll Cut You Down, and The Journalist and The Murderer stands as an important text regarding ethics in journalism, true crime in particular. So: read Joe McGinnis’ Fatal Vision, where the writer struck up a friendship with an accused murderer, telling him that he was going to write a glowing book, and the result is a portrait of a murderer; then read The Journalist and the Murderer which deconstructs this case, beginning with “Every journalist… knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” And then Errol Morris takes the case on in A Wilderness of Error, where he tries to correct course with Malcolm’s broad strokes against journalism. Once you’re done, you’ll have a lot to talk about.
Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor, Mark Seal
If you want the true story about “Clark Rockefeller,” the German grifter ballsy enough to pose as a Rockefeller, whose lies and crimes (um, murder) were revealed once he kidnapped his biological daughter in the middle of a bitter divorce, read Seal’s work. If you want to know just what it’s like to get caught in a spider’s web, and the insecurities and class issues that are preyed upon by the criminally charming, Kirn’s memoir of twisted friendship is a fantastic, complicated read.
The Thin Blue Line, directed by Errol Morris
The endlessly curious work of Errol Morris is all worth your time, and this classic is a great choice, as it accomplished one amazing thing: it got a man released from prison. Morris has had a lot of jobs in his time, and in this case, his experience as a private investigator helped as he dove into the case of a man who was sentenced to prison for the murder of a police officer. As Morris searches for the truth about that night, we get a whole new view on the case. Engrossing, important, political work.
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
The 1893 World’s Fair was a tribute to ingenuity and invention, and when Larson writes about how the Ferris Wheel was put together in an effort to outshine Paris’ Eiffel Tower, it’s a beautiful look at innovation. Yet while all this pomp and hoopla was taking over Chicago, a young doctor named Holmes was using that case of bread and circuses as a front for his elaborately staged, sadistic series of murders. The mix of architecture and murder is a strange one, to be sure, and the results are unforgettable.
Sharlet, a journalist, author, and Dartmouth professor whose writing can be found in the likes of Harper’s, GQ, and Rolling Stone, is doing something quite extraordinary on his Instagram page. Instead of using it as an outlet for photos of dogs and cats, friends and family, he’s diving into the tool like a reporter and expanding the app’s borders through observation, conversation, and reflection. In his photos labeled “nightshift” he’s giving us short hits of stories behind the people working at the convenience store and Dunkin’ Donuts; there’s short behind-the-scenes photos going into more detail behind his articles and work (like his 2014 GQ piece on young gay people in Putin’s Russia) and he’s currently writing the story of Mary Mazur, a “mentally ill woman lost in the cold,” a gripping narrative about someone who could easily slip past the eye. With his work on Instagram, Sharlet’s grabbing us by the lapels, asking us to pay attention, and it’s vital, crucial work that should leave a lasting influence in journalism and narrative nonfiction.
All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward All the President’s Men, directed by Alan J. Pakula Dick, directed by Andrew Fleming
Two men took down a presidency. That’s the short version. And even if the 40-year-old case may have sort of drifted into our collective consciousness as “Deep Throat” and “Watergate” and “I am not a crook,” it’s important to remember the work that Woodward and Bernstein did (and remained sexy while doing so, at least in the William Goldman-scripted film), while investigating the Watergate break-in, the scandal, and the Nixon tapes. Essential journalism led to a wildly influential film, and if you need a hilarious chaser, Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch have a fantastic cameo as Woodward and Bernstein in the perennially underrated, always very funny teen girl movie — starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams — on the Nixon presidency, Dick.
The Good Nurse, Charles Graeber
A night nurse named Charles Cullen may have been the most prolific serial killer in history, using the cover of nursing to gently bring patients into the great beyond. But where Graeber’s story gets fascinating — and he was the only journalist that Cullen would communicate with, over the span of six years — is, well, the detail he brings to the faceless bureaucracies who looked the other way as the bodies added up. There was nothing to prosecute in this case. It was just natural human error, time after time. The result is chilling.
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles
If and when you are in Los Angeles, you should go here. Don’t read anything about it. It’s a museum that’s a tribute to our obsessions; the result is a magical, surreal place, possibly the most Californian place in the world. There are dogs and doves and dice that belonged to Ricky Jay. It is incredible. That’s all.