Serial, Mystery Show, and why listeners want to be in on the investigation

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Starlee Kine formally launched her detective career this summer when Gimlet Media released Mystery Show. During the podcast’s six-episode first season, Kine uncovered the stories behind a vanished video store and an inscrutable lunch box. She tracked down the owners of a breakfast-themed belt buckle and a vanity license plate that reads “ILUV911.” Days after the second episode was released, Mystery Show became Gimlet Media’s first podcast to reach No. 1—a position held and frequently swapped by a very small number of shows since Serial, Sarah Koenig’s re-investigation of a Baltimore murder case, claimed the top spot for three consecutive months.

Like Koenig, Kine produced stories for This American Life for years. The success of Mystery Show might well make Kine the second-best-known detective in podcasting.

So perhaps it follows that, from time to time, Mystery Show and Serial rub elbows. In a July interview with Vanity Fair, Kine said her show was initially misconstrued as “Gimlet’s answer to Serial.” A few weeks ago, Mystery Show joined a few other podcasts in a New York Times article headlined, “After ‘Serial,’ What Podcasts to Listen To.” The friend who recommended Kine’s podcast to me called Mystery Show “the anti-Serial.”

In most respects, Mystery Show bears little resemblance to Serial. Kine’s podcast is shaggier and more digressive, both concerned with the detective genre and tickled by its conventions. Like Serial (or, for that matter, Law & OrderMystery Show is a procedural; unlike Serial, it’s frequently and disarmingly funny. Kine’s self-styled gumshoe is nothing like Koenig’s scrutinous reporter persona. (“I’m not a detective or a private investigator,” Koenig says in the first Serial episode.) Kine and Koenig pursue different mysteries to different ends, and operate with fundamentally different ideas of what satisfies their listeners. Koenig’s reporting for Serial amplified the questions surrounding the death of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Adnan Syed. In turn, plenty of listeners expressed frustration at Koenig’s inability to definitively uphold or overturn Syed’s conviction. Kine hasn’t tackled a murder case or the possibility of a flawed judicial process; her topics are far lighter, and she tidily concludes each case.

 

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Serial host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis in the studio. (Elise Bergerson)

 

And therein lies perhaps the crucial difference, summed up in a pledge Kine makes before a few Mystery Show episodes, a promise that Koenig could never make to her listeners: “Every week, I solve a new mystery.” Since Serial’s debut, the phrase “unsolved mystery” has appeared in hundreds of news stories, according to LexisNexis. If mysteries are journalistic hooks, then solutions—or a lack thereof—can be bait. But is solvability everything? And if not, what might reporters learn from Kine and Koenig about the pleasures and perils of guiding listeners to a definitive answer?

 

The creators of Serial didn’t pronounce their podcast a “mystery.” The description posted on iTunes creates a modest expectation: “The show follows the plot and characters wherever they lead, through many surprising twists and turns.” But the expectations of the Serial audience didn’t always align with those of its creators.

“Ira Glass came in … and more or less said, I think it’d be great if you guys, like, solved it,” Koenig told Terry Gross during a Fresh Air interview.

There are meaningful differences between ending a story and solving a mystery, and none greater than this: the latter requires bulletproof evidence. Koenig told Gross, “I always just felt like, ‘I’m just going to keep my head down and keep reporting and keep reporting and keep reporting.’ And it’ll come to an end as all stories do. And the reporting’s going to take me there. I can’t pre-engineer this, right?” In Serial, Koenig does what Adnan Syed’s jury perhaps did not: She constrains her conclusion to the realm of what is, for her, knowable and provable.

Kine is constrained by the same borders as Koenig, but the solutions to her mysteries lie a bit closer to hand. Each episode of Mystery Show guarantees closure, and since complicated mysteries are sometimes unsolvable, Kine has so far limited herself to the relatively trivial. It sounds like a harsh critique, but that’s the nature of solvability.

Here’s how one Mystery Show episode works: In “Source Code,” Kine speaks with a man named David, who wants to know the precise height of the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Kine uses her social network to launch a citywide stakeout for Gyllenhaal who, like Kine, lives in New York. She reaches out to the actor through a mutual friend, but Gyllenhaal demurs. Via text, she encourages a second friend to approach him at a restaurant, then tries (and fails) to call the confrontation off. I don’t imagine it spoils too much to say that Kine finally reaches Gyllenhaal and gets her answer, but revealing much more would rob the story of its tension and charm.

 

We’re really used to mysteries not being solved. I think we’re braced for disappointment all the time. There’s something visceral about getting an answer … we crave closure.

 

You might wonder whether “tension” is an appropriate word to apply to Mystery Show. One of Serial’s principle pleasures was its tension, which derived from the possibility that Koenig might uncover evidence that overturned a murder conviction. That tension charged Koenig’s conversations with her producer and her own contemplative asides, and vivified her analysis of phone records and building plans.

With Mystery Show, the outcome is something of a given, but the podcast relies on a different kind of tension. Journalism in any medium is charged with a bit of mystery. Headlines or photographs or dialogue invite a journalist’s audience to follow her a bit deeper into the woods. The journalist’s responsibility to her audience, then, is to find the path. Mystery Show enacts the tension of creating a piece of journalism; it presents a version of the world that dramatizes its mysteries, and then documents Kine’s process of wading further in and, ultimately, out into the sunlight. Serial listeners wondered whether Koenig would solve a mystery. Mystery Show listeners anticipate how Kine will solve hers.

 

Tracking down Starlee Kine for an interview felt, at times, like a Mystery Show episode. In mid-August, I approached a mutual acquaintance and asked if she’d make an introduction. She e-mailed Kine, but neither of us received a response. A few days later, I tweeted at Kine.

 

 

She replied quickly with her show’s e-mail address. I sent a note and waited but didn’t hear anything. More than a week later, I tried Chris Giliberti, Gimlet Media’s chief of staff, who sent an introductory note to Kine. Another week passed, and I called Giliberti, who seemed surprised to hear from me again. (In his defense, his title isn’t “press manager.”) I wrote to Kine once more and told her I planned to visit New York, and could meet her in person.

She wrote back, but it took a while to finalize a rendezvous. The time changed; Kine was preparing for an Advertising Week panel and an appearance on Conan. The location changed, too, but that one’s on me. When Kine arrived, apologetic for being more than an hour late, I apologized too, and asked to move so I could hear her better.

Kine has long enjoyed reading and watching mysteries, but has a particular fondness for those stories in which characters suddenly find themselves in mysterious circumstances. “I like Philip Marlowe and The Long Goodbye, I like noir,” says Kine. “But I think I like it even more when there are regular people who can’t believe a mystery is going to happen and then it does. The fictional version of that, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

In order to solve a new mystery each episode, Kine necessarily undertakes a few that don’t turn out. “Solvability can really backfire,” she says. “Unless I can figure out how to find D. B. Cooper, I won’t be taking on those cases.” On the other hand, she added, “The cases I’m more reluctant to take on are the ones that are too easy to solve.” During the first season of Mystery Show, Kine told herself that she “needed to see a path to be able to solve it.” Her solved cases ratio, she told me, was “pretty good.”

For the second season, Kine will carry over a few cases-in-progress from Season One, mysteries she thinks she can close. She started a case that involved a bipolar man who lost a car in a parking garage during a three-day blackout, but someone else solved it before she could. She declined a few others that didn’t intrigue her. (“I got one the other day that was like, ‘I got a weird thing growing out of the plant on my desk. What is it?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”) Though Kine and Gimlet have not shared a start date, Kine told me the cases for Season Two are “much more chancy.” One mystery—a photograph “from a while ago,” with an unidentified subject—has her stalled.

“I don’t know where the steps are at all,” she says.

If Kine’s early successes have emboldened her to pursue a few trickier cases, then journalists might benefit from following her work in much the same way they benefitted from following Koenig’s.  Detective novelist Raymond Chandler wrote, “The investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.” Kine writes with Chandler’s concern for genre and her own concerns for her medium, but she investigates with a journalist’s tools, and seems committed to showing her listeners how she uses them to dig.

“The whole detective thing is you have to show the work,” says Kine. When listening to a show, “there’s time that passes when I’m solving [a case], which I don’t feel is as inherent a part … when you’re reporting a story. I think you actually have to feel the passage of time for it to feel like a case is happening. As a listener, you have to feel like, ‘I’ve been hitting the pavement, working on this case.’”

Kine puts her audience through much of the work she undertakes. For interviews, she often reserves four-hour blocks of studio time, and uses every minute of it. Even heavily edited, those interviews suggest the extensive back-and-forth between Kine and her subjects. “Britney,” the second episode of Mystery Show, includes a seven-minute conversation between Kine and a Ticketmaster representative. “I think it’s so much what radio is good at,” says Kine. “I like longer things. I don’t like short sound bites, I don’t like interruptions, I don’t like jumping around.”

Those long interviews also yield much of the raw material that ornaments Kine’s narratives. Public radio narrators often bring their own interpretations to bear on their stories. With Mystery Show, however, Kine is wary of trying to “idea it up.” “I see how [the show] rejects my bullshit injection of meaning,” she tells CJR.

Kine works—and edits—hard to preserve an atmosphere of mystery. Several of her guests have well-known public personas, so Kine only uses their first names, to make sure no character trumps the case itself. She also scrubs references to journalism. One interview subject referred to Kine’s headphones during a fast-paced conversation, and she spent a lot of time excising the reference from her tape. “I feel like it would take you out of the moment,” she says. “It’s really important to keep that intact.”

Which is, perhaps, the place where Kine and Koenig meet. The two reporters have a knack for showing their work—the process of each investigation, each new inquiry and dead end. Kine cuts mentions of headphones for the same reason Koenig leaves them in: to preserve her on-air persona and, by extension, to sustain the tension of her search. New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote that Koenig “allowed us to feel like Harper Lee, riding shotgun with Truman Capote as he reported ‘In Cold Blood,’ before he conveniently mangled facts in his telling.” One of Garner’s colleagues praised Serial for “its willingness to defy some of the worst trends in journalism,” and for a tone that was “strikingly casual, immersive, and transparent.” When Koenig tells the story of her search, she doesn’t package it in noir the way Kine does. But it would be inaccurate to say Koenig isn’t equally preoccupied with genre. Kine uses journalism to show how mysteries work; Koenig uses a mystery to show how journalism works.

Journalism’s job is to pursue answers, even if they may not be obtainable. Koenig reminded listeners of precisely that when Serial concluded its first season in December. Would Kine ever air an episode in which she failed to close a case?

“I think we’re really used to mysteries not being solved,” she told me. “I think we’re braced for disappointment all the time. There’s something visceral about getting an answer … I think we crave closure.”


 

But it may be that investigating a mystery—confronting the forest, then wading further in—is more visceral than simply getting an answer. Days after we talked, Kine made her Conan debut. After a brief exchange, Conan O’Brien brought out Jake Gyllenhaal, the subject of Season One’s most entertaining mystery, and asked Kine to help measure him to confirm his height. They did, but it wasn’t as entertaining or instructive as hearing Kine tell the story of her search.

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Brendan Fitzgerald is a journalist currently based in Ottawa, Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @bmfitzgerald.