On this episode of The Desk Set, we're digging into books about crime. We talk with journalist Ken Armstrong, author of A False Report, about his work investigating the rape of a young woman in Lynnwood who recanted her original report, even though it later turned out to be true, and how he and fellow journalist T. Christian Miller ended up working together on the story that was published online, featured in an episode of This American Life, and then turned into the book. Then, Britta interviews Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of A Body. They talk about how Alex's experience as a legal intern working on a death penalty case inspired the book, which weaves together memoir and true crime. Finally, we recommend some of our favorite books about crime (Emily's Picks | Britta's Picks) and shout-out KCLS's recommended mystery and true crime lists. In this episode, we mention that Alex uses they/them pronouns. Want to learn more about pronouns? Check out this online resource or book.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the ideaX Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. This episode features the song "John Wayne Gayce, Jr." by Sufjan Stevens.
Emily Calkins: You are listening to the Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We are your hosts, Emily Calkins ...
Britta Barrett: ... and Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: Our first episode of the season explores books about crimes. In this episode we interviewed two authors. At the center of their books are violent crimes, including rape and murder. While we've intentionally kept the details of these crimes to a minimum, there may still be moments that are difficult to hear. We're sharing this information upfront so that you can make the best decision for yourself about when and where to listen.
Britta Barrett: Also of note, one of the authors we interview, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich goes by Alex, identifies as gender queer, and uses they/them pronouns. If the concept of non-binary gender identity, preferred pronouns, or the use of the singular they is new to you, we'll include some resources in our show notes, so that you can learn more about that.
Emily Calkins: Okay, onto the episode. First we sit down with Ken Armstrong, author of A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America.
Britta Barrett: Then we chat with Alex Marzano-Lesnevich about their book The Fact of a Body.
Emily Calkins: Finally, we recommend some of our favorite books about crime, and I've chosen a few lighter picks in case the rest of the episode has really got you down.
Emily Calkins: In 2009, a young woman living in Lynnwood, Washington called the police to report a crime. A masked man had broken into her apartment in the early morning hours and raped her. As the police began to investigate, they noticed some inconsistencies in her story, and eventually, in tears, the young woman recanted, and agreed to sign a statement that she had made the whole thing up.
Nearly two years later, the Lynnwood Police called her back out of the blue. A serial rapist had been arrested in Colorado. Among the things that police had found in his apartment, a digital camera, and on the memory card of that camera was a picture of this young woman, bound and blindfolded with her learner's permit on her chest. There's absolutely no doubt that her original report was true.
So how does something like this happen? That's the question that journalists Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller explore in their incredible true crime investigation, A False Report. Ken joined us to talk about the book.
Ken Armstrong: My name is Ken Armstrong. I live in Seattle. I am a co-author of A False Report. The other author is T. Christian Miller.
Britta Barrett: Yeah, and how did you guys get together to write this book?
Ken Armstrong: It was not by design. We actually started working on the story independently of each other. T. was at one news organization, I was at another, competing news organizations. Unbeknownst to each other, we were working on the same story for months. T. was working on the story in Colorado, while I was working on the story in Washington.
Once we finally tripped across one another, we had a decision to make, whether to compete or to collaborate. We decided to work together. Then we wound up writing a story online for both of our news organizations, and then after that, we continued our reporting, and went ahead and wrote the book together.
Britta Barrett: That parallels so much of how the story unfolds. Can you tell us a little bit about where it takes place?
Ken Armstrong: Sure. It takes place in Lynnwood, Washington, at least at the start. The story is about a man who is a serial rapist, and he committed his attacks in one jurisdiction, and then another because he was aware that law enforcement agencies often struggle to work together, that they often don't share information efficiently or effectively.
He committed his attacks in Lynnwood and then Kirkland in Washington State, and then he later moved to Colorado where he committed rapes or attempted rapes in four different suburbs of Denver.
Emily Calkins: One of the things that struck me about the book is the combination of coincidence and incredibly hard work that lead to him being apprehended in the end. The fact that the lead detective in Colorado is married to a detective from another jurisdiction, and it just comes up in their evening conversation with each other, that there's a similar case. And then on the other hand, this incredible work of reviewing all of the crime scenes to look at the vehicles, and someone noticing this white truck has been spotted at multiple crime scenes. What do you think the implications are for police work in general?
Ken Armstrong: You mentioned the conversation that one of the detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had with her husband. I think about that often. She comes home after the day that this rape happened, and she began investigating it. She tells her husband about what she learned that day. He just so happens to work at another police department where they had a case just like it. Because of that happenstance, that conversation that they happen to have together, she's immediately alerted to the possibility that the same rapist has struck in a different jurisdiction shortly before. The odds of that conversation happening, there's no way to calculate it, but it has to be long.
From there, Stacy Galbraith capitalizes on her good fortune about learning that when she did. She teams up with the detective in Westminster, and from there they do everything that Marc O'Leary, the rapist, never anticipated. They join up, they share resources, they pool information, they build a team. Because of that, because of that teamwork, they're able to close in on him. That same teamwork did not take place in Washington. They missed that opportunity. Even though they were made aware of the similarities between the attacks in Lynnwood and Kirkland, they weren't able to tie the two together, and it was really a missed opportunity to broaden their investigation here when they could have.
Emily Calkins: You mentioned that this started out as a piece that was published online, and as an episode of This American Life. Why did you decide to go forward and do the whole book as well?
Ken Armstrong: Initially T. and I didn't want to. It's such a grim subject, and having been with it as long as we had, with both of the online story and with the This American Life episode, This American Life devoted the entire hour to this story. It was really a challenge, and it was a pretty formidable story.
: We were both ready to move on, but after that initial impulse, and after more time passed, we realized that there was more to the story than we wanted to tell, that there was more context, more history. We realized that we would regret it in years to come if we didn't take advantage of that.
One of the sections in the book that I found most rewarding, in terms of doing the research, was the history of sexual assault, and how what happened with Marie in Lynnwood is not some outlier. It really traces to how historically in the United States, we have treated women with distrust. Not just in terms of how cases are investigated, but in terms of how they're tried, right down to how juries had been instructed over the centuries. Juries have been instructed to not trust women when they claim that they've been raped.
Being able to write that history, and to take it from the 1600s in Great Britain, up to the present day was something that we really couldn't do in the online piece, but that's what books allow you to do. They allow you to go deep with context and history, and to show people that as outrageous as Marie's case is, it's not alone. Her case is not unique.
Britta Barrett: The details of the crime in the book are nothing short of harrowing. It doesn't get easier for someone who's reading, or in our case, I think we're both listening to the audiobook, this pattern emerge over and over again. It's also important to figuring out who this person is, and what's their modus operandi is. How did you decide how much to share?
Ken Armstrong: It was difficult. I think that's one of the things that we wrestled with most, is how much detail is enough, how much detail is too much. You have danger on both sides. If you have too much detail, you go into an area that is graphic and salacious. We didn't want to do that. But if you don't have sufficient detail, you're sanitizing what happened, and you're not letting readers know the horror of what each of these individuals experienced.
We had a lot of cold readers. All but one were women. It was important for us to get as much feedback as possible so that we could learn from other people, did they feel like the amount of detail was sufficient?
It was one of those cases where I as I mentioned, T. and I didn't set out to work together on this. The fact that you had two male authors was not by design. That's something that just happened. Because of that, we were always concerned that we might have blind spots, or there might be things where we were being insensitive without being aware of it. We really tried hard to make sure that we had as many women reading the book as possible. And we were fortunate the publisher at Crown was Molly Stern, and both of our editors were women, Rachel and Emma, so that was incredibly helpful to us. But we struggled with that, we struggled with the amount of detail about the crimes, we also struggled with the amount of detail about each of the victims, because most of them did not want to be identified, and you had the danger of how much detail threatens to identify them, but if you don't have enough detail, they become cardboard cutouts, and you don't want that either. There are a number of things in the book where we were trying to find middle ground.
Britta Barrett: Well I think that really shows. My hesitation reading a lot of true crime books is the lens with which they're written is often objectifying or lingering on the gory details. Personally, I'm not that interested in reading that, but I didn't come away with that feeling from yours. Thank you for taking on a difficult task.
Ken Armstrong: Well I've been glad to hear that because that was a great risk. He attacked six women, and we account for each of those attacks during the book. If we had gone into great detail with each one, I think it would have been unbearable for the reader. But at the same time, if you skip over any of them, I think that's a disservice of a different kind.
Emily Calkins: I wonder if any of the people involved in the case, either detectives, or the crime scene analysts, or any of the victims have read the book, and if you've heard from them.
Ken Armstrong: We certainly have from detectives in the book because we went over it with them at great length. I went over the book at great length with Marie, the 18-year-old victim in Lynnwood. She told me that she didn't have it in her right now to read the book, she didn't want to revisit it in that detail. But I went through it whenever I had any questions about does this seem appropriate, does this level of detail seem appropriate?
She and I talked on the phone often. We also met in person when we were working on the radio show with This American Life. She was incredibly helpful in letting us know what her feelings were, and what she felt was appropriate. A lot of times, I think that there's a danger of making assumptions about what people will feel. I'll give you an example: when we did the online piece, we had one audio element in it, and it was a one-minute clip of audio of Marie talking about what happened that morning, describing being attacked. A lot of people involved in the production end thought that she would be opposed to us using that audio. I called her, and I played the audio for her, and I asked her, "What are your thoughts on us using this?" Her reaction was the opposite of what a lot of people thought.
She not only was okay with us using it, she wanted us to use it, she wanted people to hear her voice, she wanted people to hear her describing what happened so that they could appreciate what happened, and that they could get that this was her speaking, and this was what was not believed. A lot of times, our first impulse was to ask people themselves, what their views were on whether we use something or didn't use something.
Emily Calkins: I'm wondering if that's true also of the detectives in Lynnwood and Kirkland who -- that's where the case fell apart. I think what is remarkable to me about the book is despite the fact that they made huge mistakes, it's really quite, I don't want to say compassionate exactly, but it really allows them to have a voice as well about what was going through their heads, and the decision making process, and then their feelings afterward. It feels like a very well rounded picture of the events.
Ken Armstrong: Yeah, I give the police in Lynnwood a great deal of credit for talking to us as openly and candidly as they did. I do a lot of writing about criminal justice, and in my experience, a lot of times when police make mistakes, they don't talk about it. They adopt a bunker mentality, and they won't even acknowledge the error, much less apologize for it.
The opposite held true here. The Lynnwood police owned the error, they talked about how they made the mistakes they did, and they talked about what they're doing different now to prevent the past from repeating itself. I think when you hear the detective's voice in the radio show, and when you read his words in the book, you get the sense that his remorse in genuine. It is. There is one passage where I asked him a question about whether he thinks of Marie often. The question just hit him like a sledgehammer. About a half a minute pause, about a half minute passed, before he was able to talk. Then he left the room, composed himself, and came back and answered the question. That wasn't acting. That was genuine.
It's one of the things that T. and I were, when we look back on the book, one of the things that strikes us is how many people talked to us. Marie spoke with us, and I give her so much credit for being willing to do that because she wanted people to learn from what happened in her case. The two foster mothers who didn't believe Marie, and made a terrible mistake which they both regret, they talked to us also, so that people could learn from their mistakes. The police who got it wrong spoke with us, Marc O'Leary spoke with us.
You hear a lot of voices in the book that you're not accustomed to hearing, at least not in the same story. You might hear that individually in other stories, but to hear everybody talking about what they did in this case is pretty unusual.
Emily Calkins: I'm interested in the fact that Marc O'Leary, who's the rapist, spoke to you as well, and how you decided similar to thinking about the descriptions of the crimes, how much voice do you give someone like that, and how do you balance that?
Ken Armstrong: When we wrote the online story, the story was about 12,000 words, and we didn't quote him. We didn't use him the story, it just didn't feel like when you had only 12,000 words that you wanted to go down that path. But with the book, we felt like there was more room to do that. We do have a number of chapters in the book where we draw on our interview with him, and we draw on an FBI agent's interview with him. The FBI agent conducted a four-hour with him, and we had that tape. We also had what he said in court. We got a transcription of what he said when he was sentenced. We had seven to eight hours worth of material with him talking about what he did. We felt like it was important to include that in the book, not to excuse, not even necessarily to explain, but to describe.
Our impulse was the same as the FBI's. If you have an opportunity to talk with someone, and gather some information about why they think they did what they did, that's valuable. Talking to Marc O'Leary was also valuable because he also went into detail about the steps he took to avoid being caught. I think the more you understand those steps, the greater the chance of catching the next person, the next Marc O'Leary.
I think that's also one of the reasons that he said he spoke with the FBI, was that he was willing to help. Whether you believe that or not, it is valuable to hear him talking about how he had studied rape investigations, and the steps he took to avoid capture.
Britta Barrett: Another thing that struck me was that Marie's story is still on websites trying to say that women lie about rape, and uses an example of this, that hasn't been updated or corrected, that to this day, there is still places that are citing her as an example of this problem of false reporting. Could you speak a little bit to what we know from data about how often false reporting happens?
Ken Armstrong: The truth is, we don't know how often it happens, and how could we know? In the grand universe, because some of the estimates are that there are as many as 150,000 sexual assaults each year in the United States. Anyone claiming to know with precise detail how many of those allegations are false or true, they're fooling themselves. But the best research, the best estimates that we've seen indicate that it's in the neighborhood of 2% to 8%. You'll find one study claimed it was 90% are false, but that was based upon 18 cases, and the methodology was dubious at best. That's a charitable description.
One of the things that we tried to make clear in the book was no matter whether false reports occur frequently or rarely, and it's almost certain the latter, rarely, the best approach is to table your assumptions, and to treat each case on its own merits, investigate thoroughly, diligently with an open mind, and let the evidence speak. Evidence trumps assumptions, and I think that it's a mistake sometimes to go into any report of a crime with a closed mind, with a feeling that usually this is the case, or usually that's the case. I think that's when investigators get in trouble.
Britta Barrett: Technology also played a role in uncovering this case. Could you speak to the strengths and limitations of things like rape kits?
Ken Armstrong: I didn't know the history of rape kits before we started working on this, and I knew that in the present day, one of the great tragedies in police work right now, and I don't think that's overstating it, is all the rape kits that have gone untested. We're seeing that in city after city, where they're discovering rape kits that are sitting on shelves that were never tested because of a lack of funding, because of a lack of commitment, whatever the reason might be.
One of the things that I found most interesting was that rape kits originated in the 1970s in Chicago, and it was the work of Marty Goddard, largely. She was a victim advocate in Chicago, and she was working with a crime lab analyst in Chicago, Lou Vitullo. They came up with a kit that would help preserve evidence in cases of sexual assault, but they didn't have the funding to actually make the kits into something that they could assemble the parts, and have it where you could basically have it almost like an assembly line, where you could produce these in mass.
The funding came from the Playboy Foundation. Hugh Heffner and his foundation provided $10,000. Then a lot of volunteers with the Playboy Foundation, they were mostly senior citizens, came and they put the initial kits together in the offices at the Playboy Foundation. They set up tables and chairs, they had coffee and refreshments, and that was their initial assembly line.
Marty Goddard said she put up with a lot of grief from taking money from Playboy, but it wasn't like she had a lot of options. Foundations at the time were loathe to fund this. Playboy was willing to. I entirely understand how she felt like what was important was to get this started. If people had problems with where the money was coming from, well then they could put up their own money. But in the interim, she wanted to make sure these kits were available.
Emily Calkins: That's a fascinating story.
Ken Armstrong: It's unlikely. I was stunned when I saw that. Again, it's one of those things where we all have assumptions that we make, and we can be surprised.
Britta Barrett: Some of your other writing looks at the intersection of football culture and violence, sometimes against women. Could you tell us a little bit about Scoreboard?
Ken Armstrong: Sure. Yeah, that was a book that I published that I wrote with Nick Perry back in 2010. It was about the last University of Washington football team to go to the Rose Bowl. At least the last at that time, obviously, they just returned. But it was about the 2000 season at UW. What we did is we looked at players on that team who were getting in trouble off the field, and how the community was complicit in not holding them to account. That went from everyone from prosecuting attorney’s office, to some police departments, to the media, to the university, to the athletic department, to coaches.
One of the players we focused on in the book was Jerramy Stevens. He was accused of sexual assault while he was a football player at the UW. He was accused of sexual assault with a freshman at the university. We went into great detail about what the evidence was in that case, and how prosecutors wound updeciding not to charge him, despite that evidence. The lead detective in that case, Maryann Parker, remained so disappointed that it was handled that way. She felt like the evidence was compelling, and that the evidence should have gone to a jury so that a jury could have decided whether or not he was guilty, but that never happened because the prosecuting attorney's office decided not to bring charges.
But it was in that book, we go into the difficulties that the young woman in that case had in bringing it forward, and what the repercussions were in her own life. One of the things that sticks with me is she wound up filing a lawsuit against the university for not holding Jerramy Stevens accountable for what she accused him of doing. The university at one point filed a motion demanding that she be named in full in the pleadings, saying that it was a matter of transparency, that the public was entitled to know her full name.
Well, people filing under initials, pseudonyms, Jane Doe is done rather frequently in these cases. The court system knows the full name. It's not like the attorneys don't know, and that the system doesn't know, but just in the pleadings it's not immediately available. What was so striking to me was the hypocrisy there, because we had done a lot of reporting on sealed court files, and a number of them involved the University of Washington, where the university had on its motion gotten lawsuits, or at least one lawsuit in particular, because it was around the same time, sealed where it was accused of medical malpractice, it came out of the medical school. Here the university was arguing for privacy when it was accused in this one matter, and it wanted her to be named in the other.
But the book really went into detail about how athletics distorts our moral compass, and how it just tends to skew our moral compass, and how a lot of people were hurt that year because people wanted to make sure that the best players were able to take the field.
Britta Barrett: Are there other books by journalists who you think really tackle justice, or police reform, or any of these difficult topics well, that you would suggest for our listeners?
Ken Armstrong: When I was going through the research for this book, what was most telling to me wasn't the books written by journalists, it was the research in centuries gone by, written by legal scholars or legal analysts. For me, being able to read what Sir Matthew Hale wrote in the 1600s, or what John Henry Wigmore wrote in the 1930s and 1940s was invaluable because a lot of times, when you read legal scholarship from centuries gone by, you feel like there's a great distance between what they were writing then, and where we're at now. I did not feel that way when I was writing about sexual assault and how it has been handled in the courts. I felt like there was very little distance. That's so much of the problem, is that the way sexual assault is investigated, the way that it is tried, we have not made the progress that we should have, at least not as quickly as we should have. We still have a long ways to go.
Marie was not only disbelieved, she was charged criminally with filing a false police report. She's not alone. The same thing has happened in recent years in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania, in New York. I'm sure there have been other instances. We could talk about a woman in California who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and she wasn't believed until video surfaced showing that she had been telling the truth all along. It's just deeply disturbing that these kinds of cases are happening in different places across the country.
Emily Calkins: In general, what are you reading now? We'd always ask.
Ken Armstrong: Right now, I'm reading A Gentleman in Moscow, and I love it. The writing is just gorgeous. Have you read it?
Emily Calkins: I haven't read it, but it's been in our most checked out books since it came out, for going on three years now.
Ken Armstrong: That why I gave it to myself as a Christmas present. You know how it is, you see it, you buy it. I handed it to my wife and I said, "This was so nice of you to give it to me for Christmas," because I wanted to end last year on a good book and start the new year with a good book. It's wonderful. I just had heard from so many people, you have to read this book. Once you've heard that for the eighth time, you start to listen. It's terrific.
Britta Barrett: If anyone wants to read more of your work, where can we find you on the internet?
Ken Armstrong: I have an author website, it's bykenarmstrong.com. The book, A False Report is available at all the usual bookstores, and the story is also going to be on Netflix this year. It's an unusual story because we wrote an online story, we did a one-hour radio episode, it's now out in a book, and this year it's going be an eight-part dramatized series on Netflix.
Britta Barrett: I'm going to go home and add to that my queue.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, totally.
Britta Barrett: Thanks so much for being with us.
Ken Armstrong: Well thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Britta Barrett: The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is a book that combines true crime murder mystery with family memoir and legal theory. Both of Alex's parents were lawyers, and they grew up with the law the same way some people might grow up with religion. From an early age they were staunchly anti-death penalty, and set themself on the path to fight the death penalty as their calling and vocation. But when Alex took a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, their faith in the law was tested. When Alex watches a tape of the convicted murderer and pedophile Ricky Langley speak about his crimes, Alex is surprised and overwhelmed by the feeling of wanting him to die. The reaction propelled Alex to dig deeper into the case, and though vastly different circumstances, there's something about this story that is unsettling and familiar.
The author brings to life the facts of the case and the lives of those involved in a narrative reconstructed through court documents, transcripts, newspaper articles, and other primary sources. In doing so, Alex takes the reader on a journey that reveals the humanity of someone capable of committing horrible crimes, and raises questions about the nature of truth, forgiveness, and justice, and demonstrates what our legal system has in common with storytelling.
Alex Marzano: My name is Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I go by Alex, and I wrote a book called The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.
Britta Barrett: For someone who hasn't read the book yet, what is it about?
Alex Marzano: It is half family memoir, and half reinvestigation or recreation of a murder committed by a man named Ricky Langley of a little boy named Jeremy Guillory. In the book, I basically reinvestigate his life. I drew on some 30,000 pages of court records to write the book, and the two braids - my own life and Ricky Langley's life - weave back and forth, and ultimately collide in ways that become clearer as the book progresses.
Britta Barrett: Is there a word that fits best for you as an author to describe genre blending? It reads to me like literary nonfiction, but I'm curious if you call it something.
Alex Marzano: I've heard it called many things. I mostly call it hybrid, but that's not really a word that conveys anything. I guess I think it's a bit of a nonfiction thriller. That's more than one word, but in a way it's a nonfiction thriller about empathy. Yeah, it's about how we make stories out of the past.
Britta Barrett: Can you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming a lawyer and then a writer?
Alex Marzano: Sure. I know the moment I learned about the death penalty, which I have since realized is not a formative memory for most American school children, but there you have it. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to fight it.
I went to law school at Harvard to do that. Yet pretty much the first thing that happened was when I took a job my first summer helping to defend men accused of murder, hoping to begin what I envisioned as a career fighting the death penalty. The very first thing that happened there was that I was shown the confession videotape of a man named Ricky Langley, in which what he described not only murdering a little boy named Jeremy Guillory, but also the pleasure he took in molesting children, because Ricky Langley is a pedophile.
I was 25 years old when I watched that tape, and despite everything I believed, despite what I intended to spend my life doing, as I watched that video tape, suddenly I wanted Ricky Langley to die. It was because as I watched that tape, though I was 25, suddenly I was a child again. I could feel my grandfather's hands on me. This set up a collision in me, which was basically is who we are determined by the past or is who we are determined by what we believe?
I didn't ultimately become a lawyer. The reason was that I never felt right becoming a lawyer when the minute a case felt personal to me, I had that emotional response and my feelings changed, because every case is personal to somebody. I realized that what I was actually interested in the law was the collision of stories. I think we sometimes still think about the law as a truth finding process, even though thankfully, critiques of the narratives that emerge in trials have become more prominent over the last 10 years, but we still sometimes think of it as a truth-finding process, and it's just not. It's a truth-making process. It makes a story and we call that story truth.
Alex Marzano: I have always been interested in stories. I always wanted to be a writer, always, always. I just didn't think that was a thing you could grow up and be. I thought that was like wanting to grow up and be a unicorn. I went back to school not for non-fiction initially, I actually went back to school for fiction after finishing my law degree, not really because I thought I was going become a writer, but more because I was going to go do a PhD in Jurisprudence, and work on some questions in the death penalty that I felt very passionately about. Even though I didn't want to be in the court room, what I wanted to do was academic work thinking about the way that stories are made in the court system.
From there, one thing led to another. I kept writing, I kept writing. Slowly I still write a lot of fiction, and slowly this book emerged, as well as other projects that I'm working on now.
Britta Barrett: Something you mentioned reminded me of this moment in the book where I believe they're going through the voir dire process of trying to select the jury, and how impossible it was sometimes in this area to find someone who wasn't affected by a violent crime. I'm curious what your perspective is on that process, and how it maybe takes out people from the room who do have firsthand experience, if you think there's value having those voices in a trial.
Alex Marzano: That is a great question. First of all, I love that you're asking me about voir dire. I'm obsessed with voir dire. Like many people, I really do believe that a lot of a trial is determined in the voir dire process before the case even begins. I had 2,000 pages on voir dire in this case. At one point I wrote a version of the book where the entire narrative stopped for 20 pages, so I could geek out on voir dire, and then realized of course that I couldn't subject the reader to that. Now it's about a page and a half.
But I do think you're highlighting a very important concern. Death penalty trials are the only ones that undergo a process, where the jurors undergo a process we call death qualification, where they have to answer that yes if the verdict were to be guilty, that they would conceivably comfortable imposing the death sentence. In a way, when jurors go through that process during voir dire, there's reason to believe that they're primed to already think about executing the defendant, and they're primed to already think about guilt.
Evidence about whether this affects outcome is conflicted and unclear, but it also hasn't been studied very much, which I think is really concerning that we're getting rid of a vast percentage of the population that might be less inclined to convict. There's some evidence that people who support the death penalty are more likely to convict a defendant, period, across the board. Yeah, I think that's a big concern, and something I wanted to subtly highlight in the book.
Britta Barrett: I've only had the pleasure of jury duty once, and unfortunately, we were released right after lunch. We got to watch the video about unconscious bias, and I couldn't help but think that that was such a quixotic gesture. Maybe five minutes of watching that could undo all of the implicit bias that one carries when them in a life, but was also thinking about, "Hmm, what would happen if the person who was on trial has committed a crime that has affected my life? Would I not be able to share how I feel about that?" I think your book really beautiful illustrates the compassion that maybe one imagines wouldn't be there for someone who's experienced that.
Alex Marzano: Thank you. Yeah, I was really interested in highlighting that. I will say, I've always wanted to serve on a jury. I've been called three times. The minute they ask me what I did in law school and I say, "I worked on juries," I am promptly excused, unfortunately. I think you're highlighting something that we know to be true about the way that human beings make decisions, and that we still have a court system that pretends that it's not true. We know that people make decisions, in a large part, out of their own experience. We know that decisions are often made out of emotion, and emotion is often set by our own experience and what we've been exposed to. Yet we still have a court system that pretends, to a large extent, that that's not the case.
For example, the very concept of a jury is still taught in most law schools using the metaphor of the black box. Meaning a jury as a black box into which information comes in, and a verdict comes out, and we dare not look at the box. That to me seems outrageous, as well as a denial of, again, what we know to be true.
One of the many things that drew to writing about this case was that there were three trials, and in the first trial, with the facts of the case unchanged, the first trial resulted in a really quick death sentence, and the second trial resulted in life. You could say, "What was the difference?" Yeah, there were differences in what evidence was admitted, but not huge differences. I really believe, from the records, that the biggest difference was who was on the jury, and what they've been through themselves. As comes in the book, the jury foreman in the second case felt a deeply personal tie to Ricky Langley based on his own life experience. That really impacted the outcome of the case.
Britta Barrett: So much of true crime as a genre reinforces ideas that a rapist might be a mustache-twirling villain jumping out of the shadows in the bushes, instead of a person who is in your family, or your date for the party. I feel like your book really goes into undoing that caricature of monstrousness. I'm curious, what you think the value is of exploring people who are capable of committing heinous crimes in this way.
Alex Marzano: One is that certainly when it comes to sex offender registries, for example, we know that the majority of sex crimes, certainly against children, are committed by people known to the victim, family members, neighbors, etc. Yet the biggest weapon we have to fight this is the sex offender registry, which we know that people don't really report family members to. There's this big mismatch where the idea you're talking about that often prevails in the popular imagination, that the people who commit these crimes are the unknown stranger come to town, that idea actually undercuts our ability to deal with the real problem, socially.
I'll say it as a writer for me writing this book though, that was really uncomfortable for me. I remember the first time someone said to me, "Oh, you're writing a book about two crimes." What they meant was not just Ricky Langley's crimes, his murder of Jeremy Guillory, but my grandfather's against me, because my grandfather was a pedophile who abused me, and that's part of the memoir thread of the book. I remember my shock, and my shock at realizing, "Wait, I trained as a lawyer, and I still haven't thought about that in terms of crime.” So strong is our popular imagination that says, "No, no. When it happens in a family it's private, and when it happens by a stranger, it's a crime."
I was interested in evoking that aspect in the book, evoking that struggle, and how do you think about people that you're close to? How do you think about people that are members of your family, or members of your intimate circles? But I was also thinking about it in terms of, "Oh, something really uncomfortable happened when I had all these records, and I had these 30,000 pages of court records that I was writing from," which is that Ricky Langley started to become a person to me, a person who I felt real empathy for.
That moment, when I realized that he was becoming that, was really the moment that lead me to understand that I was going to have to write this book because my first reaction to him, as I said, was that he should die, and then he started to become a real person because I had all his therapy notes from when he was a teenager. I had the forms that he had filled out to try to get help, and he hadn't gotten help. The system had failed him, I deeply believe.
How was I think about him? How was I to think about the problem of empathy when you don't want to erase what somebody did, but you have to try to understand who they are, but what they did was still horrible, but you understand who they are, etc., etc., etc.
Britta Barrett: How was recording the audiobook?
Alex Marzano: Recording the audiobook was a fantastic way to say goodbye to a project that I had spent many years working on, seven years writing, 10 years in total. The process of finishing it, as you can imagine, was almost difficult. It was difficult to let go of it. Recording the audiobook, reading it start to finish that way, and watching the emotions play out on the faces of the sound engineer and the producer was a remarkable experience.
Britta Barrett: Are there other books about crime or law that you think do an incredible service to both?
Alex Marzano: Ooh, great question. Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore was a huge influence to me. I read it pretty early on in my own education as a writer. At the time I was really only writing fiction and I thought ... Mikal Gilmore, his brother Gary Gilmore was the first person executed by the U.S. when the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in the '70s. Gary Gilmore had committed a couple of murders, and he asked to die by firing squad, hence the book's title, Shot in the Heart. The book is Mikal Gilmore trying to grapple with that.
A bit of a side note, a trivia for listeners, Nike's slogan, Just Do It, actually comes from Gary Gilmore's last words. The ad man on the Nike account was sitting on his desk the next morning reading the paper and Gary had been executed the night before. He saw, "Just do it," and he used that as the slogan for Nike, and so it has been for many, many, many years.
But I think that, and I mention that in part because I don't think we realize all the different places that the death penalty permeates our popular consciousness. Things like every joke that we have about a last meal, or the children's game Hang Man, when you fill in the letters and what not, it permeates a lot.
So, Gary Gilmore, Shot in the Heart is one. He's trying to think about his brother's death, but in the process he has to evoke mythology, and ghosts, and the history of Utah. I'm really interested in stories that in trying to explain something, understand that they must tackle so much, that they must try to evoke a lot.
Certainly Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, which is not much about law, more about the ethnics and nonfiction, but is very powerful. A Civil Action was enormously influential to me in trying to think about how to make court room scenes engaging to read. It does a beautiful job with that, as well as evoking the power of documents.
There are many others. I think the law is all about stories, and as a result, we have a lot of good books and movies about the law.
Emily Calkins: We're talking about crime in this episode because it's one of our challenge categories for this year's 10 to Try annual reading challenge, read a book about crime. But we know that the kind of dark gritty stories that are covered in the books that we've been talking about so far aren't necessarily for everyone. I have a couple of picks for things that are little bit lighter or a little bit less devastating to read.
My first is super light, super fun. This is Goldie Vance. It is a graphic novel series aimed at teen readers, but I think they have tons of appeal for everyone. They are cute as heck, adorable, candy-colored art. Goldie is a teenager, sort of Nancy Drew meets '60s era sci-fi. She lives in a hotel in Florida where her dad is the manager, and she goes around solving crimes throughout the hotel.
In the first trade paperback, it's a possible spy, there's a connection to the space program, her really good friend wants to be one of NASA's first female astronaut. There's all kinds of intrigue, but it's just really light-hearted, really cute, and a series that I love to keep up with. That's Goldie Vance.
Britta Barrett: One more vote from an adult reader who thought it was precious.
Emily Calkins: It is the cutest.
Britta Barrett: Also, you can read it on Hoopla.
Emily Calkins: You can, so there's no waiting. My next pick is a little bit more serious, but only a little bit. This is Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, who is a journalist. Do you know the story at all?
Britta Barrett: I don't.
Emily Calkins: Okay, it is ...
Britta Barrett: It's not a Taylor Swift song.
Emily Calkins: Alas. It is bananas. Basically, in the mid to late 2010s, whatever we're calling that decade, there was this startup.
Britta Barrett: Oh, now I know what you're about to talk about.
Emily Calkins: The thing that the startup was going to do was revolutionize blood testing, which is a huge industry. It's super expensive. If you've ever had to have your blood tested for something, you know that it's not a quick prick. It's they stick the thing on your arm, and the blood is shooting out.
Britta Barrett: Can never find my veins.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. It's a whole situation. This company had developed this super innovative technology that was going to make blood testing super fast, inexpensive, something that people could do at home. A single drop would test for hundreds of potential diseases. Because it is such a huge industry and there's so much money behind it, the company grew incredibly rapidly. The founder was a young woman who dropped out of Stanford to run the company. She was a huge rising star in the tech world. In the mid-20-teens, this journalist was hearing some rumblings from former employees that maybe things at this company were not what they seemed. He started investigating, and it turned out that things were very much not what they seemed, and he started writing a series of articles that basically led to the dissolution of this company. I don't want to give anything away, but the technology didn't exist at all. This multi-billion dollar company was built on a technology that she had been faking for years.
Bad Blood is the story of that company, how it became so huge, so highly valued, and then the dissolution. It's all in court right now. It's just a wild, wild ride. You just cannot believe, huge names, billions of dollars, but no murder. That's Bad Blood.
Britta Barrett: I can't wait to read that. I feel like this is truly the year of the scam.
Emily Calkins: Yes.
Britta Barrett: Between fake German heiresses, and festivals that are falling apart.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, totally. It is the year of the scam, and Bad Blood is the leader in that. How about you, what are your picks?
Britta Barrett: Pretty Little Liars, True Detective, Veronica Mars, what do these TV shows have in common?
Emily Calkins: Things that I have binged watched.
Britta Barrett: That's a very valid answer. But for author Alice Bolin, they also typify something she calls The Dead Girl Show.
Emily Calkins: Oh, sure.
Britta Barrett: She pinpoints Twin Peaks as the progenitor of all of these shows. They start off with the discovery of this young woman's body, and go from there. She wrote an essay exploring why are we so fascinated by this dead girl, and what does this have to say about our culture? I think that's a great starting point for a book, but then the other essays included in this collection continue on to tell a story of her moving to LA, hanging out in graveyards, reading Joan Didion, listening to Lana Del Rey. This is totally my wheelhouse. If you love slightly gothy, feminist critiques of pop culture, which I do, this might be a book for you too.
Emily Calkins: Sounds awesome.
Britta Barrett: Then the next one I recommend is Alice + Freda Forever. Have you heard the podcast, No Man's Land from The Wing, or maybe Presidents Are People Too?
Emily Calkins: Huh-uh.
Britta Barrett: The author of this book is a co-host of those shows. She takes us back to Memphis in 1892 when Alice and Freda were these young teenagers in love, at a time before we really even had a word for lesbian. Alice had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her fiancé, who was 17. But their love letters were discovered and their parents were trying to keep them apart, you're forbidden from ever speaking again.
Freda was chill about this and Alice was not. For every unanswered letter that went by, she just grew more and more upset by it. She stole her dad's razor and then slit her fiancé’s throat in public. It was this wild scandal. But instead of focusing on the violence of the crime itself, people focused on the nature of their relationship.
This is the origin story. This is how prejudice against same-sex coupling started in this country with the idea that if you love someone of your same gender, you would be driven mad with perversion, and insanity, and violence. This eventually became codified in the diagnostic statistic manual for the book that contained the criteria for diagnosis for psychologists.
It also worked its way into the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which is something I'm interested in. If you don't know, in libraries, we use a series of subject headings, so when you search the catalog, there are all these classifications that help you find books. Over time, they reflected the biases of the culture that they existed in.
Interesting fact, the library changed theirs before the American Psychology Association.
Emily Calkins: Way to go, librarians.
Britta Barrett: At one point, I think up until the '70s, homosexuality was classified as sexual perversion.
Emily Calkins: Way to not go, librarians.
Britta Barrett: It took over 100 years, and countless activists and doctors to finally change this. But I'm so interested in the story of how it started with two teenagers in love.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. Fascinating. That sounds like a good one.
Britta Barrett: Then I haven't read this book yet, but have you heard about Cherry?
Emily Calkins: Yes.
Britta Barrett: Ooh, have you read it?
Emily Calkins: I have not.
Britta Barrett: Me neither. I'm still on hold for it. It seems like everyone's reading Cherry. It's Nico Walker's semi-autobiographical novel. It was written on a typewriter in jail, where he's currently still serving time for robbing over 10 banks in four months. Wild.
Walker's protagonist in the book, like himself, is a veteran who returned to civilian life with post-traumatic stress disorder, a heroin addiction, and quickly dwindling financial resources to keep up with that habit, who turned to bank robbing to support it. The backstory alone is enough to peak my interest, but Vulture also called it the first great novel of the opioid epidemic, and other critics have compared Walker's voice to Ernest Hemingway.
In recent years, the Pentagon has release statistics that suicide rather than combat is the leading killer of U.S. troops, which is a devastating fact. I feel like any book that takes us into the experiences of war, what it's like to be supported or not after you come home was something I want to read to understand why that might be.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, that sounds wonderful too.
Emily Calkins: I could wax on, and on, and on about mysteries. I haven't talked about mysteries today, just because I love them so much that I wouldn't know where to start. But if you are a listener who's new to mysteries or you're not sure what you're looking for, if you visit the website, go to kcls.org/books, and look on the left-hand side of the page. You'll see a link to Booklists, and we have both a list of recommended mysteries and a list of recommended true crime titles that we think are great introductions to the genre, classics of the genre, or new titles that we're really excited about. Check those out if you're looking for more about crime.
Emily Calkins: Many of the 10 to Try topics this year we chose because there is a big range of the stuff you can read in them. You can go from Goldie Vance, which is just so cute, and fun, and light, and I have heard from a couple of readers who have said, "Oh, I'm doing 10 to Try with my kids, and a book about crime is not really kid-friendly necessarily." There are things though. There's Goldie Vance, or there's heist stories that are fun. Art theft is another, not exactly victimless, but sort of fun. It's glamorous.
Britta Barrett: You were telling me about The Feather Thief. Can you tell our listeners what that book is about?
Emily Calkins: Yeah, so this was on our best book list last year. It's about a crime where a young man broke into a wing of the British Natural History Museum, and stole 300 birds' carcasses, like taxidermied birds, to sell their feathers to be used in the art of Victorian tie flying.
Emily Calkins: In the book, the author goes into the history of these birds, and how they became endangered or in some cases extinct. Their feathers were really popular in women's fashion, and then for this Victorian tie flying. Then he investigates this young man, and how did he end up - he was a classical musician, he was in the U.K. on a scholarship or to perform or something - how did he end up committing this crime where he basically smashed a window, got into the museum in the night, put a bunch of birds in a suitcase, and then escaped. They never have really, as far as I know, they haven't recovered the birds. It's a fascinating ... I think heists are fun.
Britta Barrett: That would never get through TSA now.
Emily Calkins: No. No, I don't know how you transport 300 birds. Speaking of heists, there's a young adult series I love called Heist Society that's about a young jewel thief that's very fun, and has that glamorous victimless crime where this young woman has left her family and their life of crime behind, but she's been drawn back in. There's a fun little romance. If you want something lighter, that's another good one.
Britta Barrett: That does sound fun. There's a new series on SYFY that just came out. As far as I understand, Deadly Class is about the next generation descendants of organized crime families, and they send them to this high school to train them up to be assassins. It's one of those things where I think their tagline is, "The knife in your back isn't a metaphor."
Emily Calkins: That is based on a graphic novel series.
Britta Barrett: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: There you go. You can read it, and then watch it, or vice versa.
Britta Barrett: I wanted to ask you about a genre that's completely unknown to me, but I know that people love it. What is a cozy mystery?
Emily Calkins: Oh, this is a great question. I will confess upfront that I am only an outside expert on cozy mysteries. I know of a lot of cozy mysteries, but I am not personally a cozy mystery reader. A cozy mystery is a very specific subgenre of mysteries, where they're very pleasant, essentially. You have a nice person solving the mystery. Usually, there are murders. Think Murder She Wrote, but a book. The person who's been murdered probably deserved it anyway.
Then they have these very specific sub-subgenres, so there's a whole bunch of cooking ones where the person who solves the crimes owns a bakery, and then there'll be recipes for the baked goods, or there's a bunch of librarian ones, or bookshop ones, or there's ones where animals play an important role, there's a crochet series, and several knitting series.
Britta Barrett: I feel like I've seen the covers with these puny titles.
Emily Calkins: Oh yeah, they have the best titles.
Britta Barrett: What are some examples?
Emily Calkins: Okay, so some examples, I mentioned there are a lot of cooking and baking ones. Éclair and Present Danger.
Britta Barrett: Oh, no.
Emily Calkins: A Batter of Life and Death. Caught Bread Handed. There's a series set In Leavenworth. That's set around a brewery. The books in that one are Death on Tap, and The Pint of No Return.
Britta Barrett: That totally makes me want to check these out, go to Leavenworth, sip a pint, enjoy a book.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, absolutely. Take Death on Tap, cozy up with your beer in Leavenworth, watch the snow fall. Cozies are great. I think people who read them, read them for a lot of the same reasons that I often read romance. You know what you're getting, and you know what the ending is going be, but the joy is in getting there, and the way that the story unfolds. It's comforting. We've talked a little bit on the show about how when there's a lot of other turmoil, there's political turmoil, or whatever is happening in your life turmoil, there's something nice about a comfort read, and that's definitely what a cozy mystery is.
Britta Barrett: It sounds to me like the formula is just what I like about Twin Peaks. You have this wonderful, sweet investigator, a quirkky small town, and a mystery unfolding. Maybe there's a touch more surrealism, and blood involved, but I get it. It sounds nice.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, exactly. I think it's very ... Makes 30% more sense than Twin Peaks, or 90% more sense than Twin Peaks.
Britta Barrett: The return.
Emily Calkins: But yes, it's much more about the cast of characters, and the cozy small town, and the little business, than it is about the murder. That's a cozy mystery.
Britta Barrett: Sign me up.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: All right, so our next episode is read a book about family.
Britta Barrett: I can't wait. We're interviewing some super cool people.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, we're talking to Angela Garbes, author of Like a Mother, which is about pregnancy, and childbirth, and science, and feminism. It's wonderful. Then we also get to talk to Laurie Frankel, she's the author of This Is How It Always Is. It's a novel that was on lots of best of the year lists, when it came out, including ours.
Britta Barrett: Look for that next month, and we also have some other exciting news.
Emily Calkins: We are giving away a copy of A False Report, and a prize pack of other books we love, including Pie & Whisky from last season, and The Girls. To enter the drawing, you just need to go fill out our survey, or you can leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. You can find details about the giveaway, a link to the survey, and all of our show notes at kcls.org/deskset.
Britta Barrett: Until next time ...
Emily Calkins: ... happy reading.