True crime and true crime podcasts are having a moment, not only in the real world but also in fiction. However, in fiction, writers can start to get behind the obsession with true crime, the ethics of these investigations and the consequences, both good and bad, of reopening old cases. Rebecca Makkai’s new novel I Have Questions For You takes all of this on, as well as a range of related issues including sexual predation, the #MeToo movement and cancel culture. And she does this within another familiar frame – a present-day return to school and reflections on a high school coming-of-age.
Makkai starts as she means to go on, positioning her tale within a much larger narrative about violence against women and our growing appetite with true crime.
Wasn’t it the one where she was stabbed in – no. The one where she got in a cab with – different girl. The one where she went to the frat party, the one where he used a stick, the one where he used a hammer, the one where she picked him up from rehab and he – no. The one where he’d been watching her jogging every day.
I Have Questions for You is about none of these murders. It is the ‘one with the swimming pool. The one with the alcohol in the – with her hair around – with the guy who confessed to – right. Yes.’ This is a 23-year-old murder at a New Hampshire boarding school called Granby and the narrator, Bodie Kane, was the roommate of the murdered girl, Thalia Keith.
Early on, Bodie reflects on her own addiction to true crime:
… I’ve cared as much about other people I haven’t met … I have opinions about their deaths, ones I’m not entitled to. I’m queasy, at the same time, about the way they’ve become public property, subject to the collective imagination. I’m queasy about the fact that the women whose deaths I dwell on are mostly beautiful and well-off … That I’m not alone in my fixations.
Bodie, now a successful podcaster in her own right, has returned to Granby to teach two ‘mini-semester’ classes – one in podcasting and one in cinema. She manipulates one of the students in her podcast class into doing a true-crime podcast about Thalia’s murder and what the whole class believes was the jailing of the wrong man for the crime. Bodie certainly believes that Omar, the man jailed, had nothing to do with the murder, and she has her own axe to grind with the ‘you’ of the title. Along the way she finds herself contemplating her teenage self, revisiting the trauma that she brought to the school, and the verbal and emotional abuse that she was subject to there.
It’s hard to describe the dizzy headspace I was in except to say I no longer had any sense of what was true … I couldn’t figure out who knew more about what happened to Thalia: me now, or me at barely eighteen. My adult self, looking back with experience and perspective, or my raw teenage self, both jaded and naïve, taking everything in fresh.
At the same time, Bodie is dealing with an issue on the home front. Her ex-husband Jerome, who still lives next door and co-parents their children, is being accused of taking sexual advantage of a 21-year-old worker in an art studio many years before, and there are calls on Twitter for him to be ‘cancelled’. Bodie’s attempted defence of Jerome adds to the controversy and puts pressure on Bodie to quit her own podcast. This past relationship and the way it is being characterised is juxtaposed against the issue of teachers who prey on and groom their students. Both Bodie and the reader are asked to consider the similarities and the differences of the various cases:
Beth snapped her head back to look right at me for the first time. ‘Sorry, but didn’t your husband get totally me-tooed?’ She was back to her sharpest voice …
I said, ‘Someone had some issues with him.’
‘So you’re one to talk. You don’t believe that woman, but you believe women when it suits you.’
‘I don’t think that’s fair.’
Through this and other events in the book, readers are asked to consider how social media is used not only in these cases but by amateur investigators – and by Bodie herself – to expose what they believe is a social wrong.
The engine that keeps all of this humming along is the investigation into Thalia’s death, which does manage to unearth new leads. But around that is the reflective coming-of-age story and Bodie’s growing realisation that nothing was quite what she thought when she was a teenager, and that all the people she thought she had left behind have now themselves grown into different people. Throughout, there are pointed and thought-provoking observations like this one:
We get so used to twenty-four-year-old actors playing high school students, and we seem so mature in our own memories, that we forget actual teenagers have limited vocabularies, have bad posture and questionable hygiene, laugh too loud, don’t know how to dress for their body types, want chicken nuggets and macaroni for lunch. It’s easier to see the twelve-year-olds they just were than the twenty-year-olds they’ll soon be.
After setting things in motion, the action snowballs to a court hearing to re-examine the original verdict. This case centres on the assertion the police only ever considered one potential perpetrator and manipulated the facts to fit that suspect. This shift allows Makkai to consider the impact of private reinvestigations like this on the family of the victim, who just want things to stay closed, on the accused, and on the state itself seeking to maintain the appearance of an infallible justice system:
… the state was trying to shore up the original timeline of the night, the one that had suggested it wasn’t worth looking into people like you or Robbie.
Rebecca Makkai does indeed have questions for you. Not just the actual ‘you’ of the book, but of you the reader. She takes readers into the grey areas and makes us consider what we might do if faced with a similar dilemma. She wants to make readers think deeply about the issues that she is raising. And she does so in an engaging, often quietly devastating way, not providing easy or necessarily even satisfying answers to those questions, instead allowing space for us to find our way to the answers ourselves.
This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.