The Real Serial Killer
There is a tension in all fiction between what is happening and what the writer chooses to reveal. In the podcast Serial, from This American Life, we must wait for crucial facts to be divulged to us, and we are dependent on which facts we are told and when. Taking only the information presented over the twelve episodes, here is what is most striking: If Jay, the accomplice and one-man conviction crew, had not come forward, if he had been able to keep his cool, we would be looking at Not that it is a perfect murder. But as presented, with a complete absence of forensic evidence and with no witnesses able to place either of the two main (alleged) participants at the murder scene—wait a minute, do we even know where it is?—that is what we are left with. Without a doubt Serial is a compulsively engaging crime investigation that has latched on to a story that’s got it all. We can act as voyeurs into a real world of school girl crushes, fierce loyalties, sex in parked cars, dope smoking, constant cell phone use, and class cutting. We can shake our heads, when we are not scratching them, at the tragedy of a prom king kind of Romeo coolly murdering his Juliet. My one major complaint with Serial is how poorly they handled the forensics story. Is it largely absent because there is no forensics story? And if that’s true then we need to hear about the dog that didn’t bark, that is, the eerie absence of any such evidence. How do you strangle an athletic girl and not leave any clues? I kept waiting for more forensic information, and actually this is part of what kept me going with the series. Surely the Serial team was holding out in the interests of narrative engagement. Then in the finale—I’d given up waiting by then—we are told about a late-breaking development, a serial killer (note the small “s”) operating in the area at the time of the murder. We are told how lawyers are petitioning for an examination of DNA evidence from the victim. I practically moaned here. We should have heard about detailed forensics in episode 1: either the police neglected to look under the victim’s fingernails, looked and didn’t find anything, or any evidence would have deteriorated over the month that the body lay buried. I still don’t know the story there.
That’s my mini-review. Now, to fiction! Imagine the entire Serial transcript is presented to me as a work in progress by a crime writer who has choked fatally on his Wheaties. My publisher wants me to finish it. Finish it as fiction, which means a satisfying knot-tying ending. One restriction: I must take what is written as fact. I cannot go back, say, and have Jay working at the video porn place before the crime. In other words someone else has written me into a corner and now I must write my way out of it, tying it all with a neat bow at the end.
The way forward is actually fairly obvious. Enter the evil Third Man. I was tempted to have Jay meet him in his porn shop, surely a good venue for bad guys, but the timing doesn’t work. But wait a minute, Jay is a small time dope dealer who must necessarily ply the seamier side of the street. How better to put Jay in the path of the psychopath this story needs so badly? Let’s see, we need a malefactor…Yes, meet Cyrus Borg, a US operative who has worked under deep cover in Afghanistan. If I told you any more he’d have to kill you. Yes, Borg has killed; yes his mission has twisted his sense of right and wrong into a pretzel. And in a riff (sorry I must think of commerciality here) on 50 Shades of Gray Borg has learned the fine art of Exapu from one of the hill tribes near Tora Bora. Common decency forbids me from going into too much detail, but you know how the French describe sex as le petit mort, well we’re talking grand mort here. In short, it does not end well for the girl.
When Borg leaves the service (more likely the service ditches him) he struggles in his studies to be an accountant. He falls back on a career in security, working for the kind of group that can use his summary experience. Jay, who can’t know any of Borg’s background, innocently introduces him to his girlfriend. Borg is smitten. She is almost perfect for the next level of Exapu, near the top. Oh, he has been waiting.
Poor sensitive Jay is putty in Borg’s hands. But no, absolutely no way is he going to share his girlfriend. Ouch, you’re hurting me. In desperation Jay goes to the smartest dude he knows, Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old high school senior. Jay passes on to Adnan some of the grisly stories Borg has related about a few of his (e)missions. Borg has also told Jay of his predilection for Asian girls, developed in his glory days in the bang streets of Backok. What will happen to Jay’s girlfriend has a desperate inevitability about it. How can Jay stand up to a rampant SEAL, or beret or whatever he is? Borg will not be denied. He is an irate bull, Jay’s girlfriend the red flag. It would be futile to throw themselves between the two. In short, what can they do but find an even bigger red flag? It is a terrible strategy to contemplate, but to these two very young men, Jay’s girlfriend is a goner. It makes a gruesome kind of sense to sub an ex-girlfriend for a current one.
Fictionally we pause here. We need both Jay and Adnan to twist on the knife, ratchet up the internal pressure. I’ll spare you at least three chapters and cut to the murder. Jay’s girlfriend will not be delivered up now; it will be Adnan’s ex-girlfriend, Hae Lee, of Korean descent. It’s tough, very tough, but one of the girls was going to get it.
The hand-over is simple. Adnan will charm Hae Lee into one last talk in the parking lot. They’ll smoke some weed. The weed, supplied by Jay, will knock Hae Lee out, or at a minimum leave her woozy and confused. Adnan, doing a Clinton, does not inhale. Borg swoops in to collect his victim. (I see a beat up white van). Simple.
So far so good—or bad. Adnan didn’t murder Hae Lee, so there can be no forensic evidence to that effect. (Surely if he strangled her red forensic alarm bells would be ringing all around him and the corpse). A week passes. Now all know that Hae Lee is missing. Adnan is implicated as the ex-boyfriend and some have put him in her car. But he’s untouchable, isn’t he? Jay, however is more sensitive. Also he is beginning to understand that Mr Evil, like any blackmailer, will be back. In fact, Borg has come back. He’s told Jay all about the murder in gruesome detail. He’s taken Jay out to the grave, showed him the dark hair poking through the leaves. Jay knows too much, will always know too much. Borg has demonstrated the consequences if he squeals.
We now build up the tension to breaking point. Jay needs to do something, the guilt is killing him. Adnan has a more athletic conscience. Then the cops start in on Jay. It’s clear they “want” Adnan. He is the only one with a motive. It is also clear the cops are grasping at evidentiary straws. Jay knows Adnan didn’t perform the actual murder. Really there is nothing to connect Adnan to the crime. He has some level of faith in the US justice system. He will give Adnan to the cops. That will take the pressure off. Borg will love it. After all, how could Jay know his testimony alone would be enough to convict his “friend”. So Jay takes the police to Hae Lee’s car. He also arranges for the body to be found. One of his weirder clients at the video store (a known streaker!) does it for free rentals and a bottle of the booze found near the body.
As for Adnan, he didn’t kill Hae Lee but he did the next worst thing. Part of him can’t be angry about his sentence. If he could have remembered more about his actions on the fateful day he may well have been acquitted, but both he and Jay had taken a lot of Dutch courage of the pharmaceutical variety. And in the exuberance of youthful overconfidence it didn’t occur to him that he should be tracking his every move. After all he did not do it and that truth will out.
This is of course fiction, and fiction calls for an ending. I will dismiss as too egotistical and self-referential an ending that has a wildly successful podcast and a London-based writer’s speculative blog acting as a spur/goad/catalyst to Jay’s conscience. What I’d really like to go for is an Agatha Christie ending. In this version Borg is a red herring. The real killer is none other than Sarah Koenig. Yes, the presenter of Serial was a reporter in Baltimore at the time of the murder. She has a second career as a dominatrix, given to rough stuff. Before I get carried away—by a team of lawyers—I had better opt for a more prosaic ending. Per the rules I must accept those fifteen intervening years. A lot can happen. It will not surprise you to learn that people of Borg’s ilk do not generally make it to the rocking chair stage of life. So, yes Borg dies. It could have been due to any rough encounter, but in actuality a diet high in red meat and low in fiber caused the bowel cancer that kills him in February 2015, breaking his hold over Jay. Finally Jay can come clean.
What can we conclude from this fictive exercise? Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction. Fiction, however, is almost always more satisfying.
Jeffrey M Anderson is an American writer based in London. His novel, Little God Blues, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online distributors. His website is www.jeffreymanderson.com