The past several months I have been traveling in Central Europe, just enough away from the United States to feel slightly out of the proverbial loop. Back stateside, I am usually found beneath a stack of novels consisting of copies in need of review or for mere pleasure (although, usually the former), all the while trying to fit in my own angst-ridden fiction.
For some reason, when I’m away from home, I have trouble concentrating on fiction. I always try, bringing along a worn paperback that I had been dutifully neglecting, promising myself that yes, I will read this on my nine-hour plane ride. Alas, this is never accomplished. I can never quite get used to all of the travel I do and can be like a fussy child who needs to be constantly entertained between wine- and Xanax-induced naps on that long-haul flight. I need a thirty minute tale of conmen and cult leaders to get me from one place to another as I wait impatiently for the next train.
While traveling, I find myself drawn to stories. Not short stories by any means, but by non-fiction and often, audio non-fiction: radio, podcasts, audio books (while in Austria for three weeks in October, I pretty much exhausted Welsh journalist Jon Ronson’s entire oeuvre). I like their voices, they way they’ve crafted their stories, the humor that inevitably follows the frequently bizarre stories I’m drawn to.
While walking the streets of Vienna (and unpleasantly out of Jon Ronson to entertain me), I figured it would be a perfect time to catch up on the past This American Life episodes I had missed. This is when I came across Serial, an off-shot of TAL hosted and created by Sarah Koenig. It follows one story over several weeks’ episodes as Koenig and her team piece together what could’ve really happened in regards to a 1999 murder of a high school girl in Baltimore. I listened to the first two episodes immediately and then just as fast, subscribed to the podcast.
I didn’t quite realize how overwhelmingly popular and addicting Serial is in the United States until I returned in November. I was lost in my own world of murder, suspicion, and a possibly inept justice system as I strolled along the Danube or embarked on a Budapest-bound train. Silly me. I thought I had found this special thing all to myself, but I was certainly wrong.
We are so used to compulsively binging on serialized television shows like House of Cards and True Detective. It seems a rare moment to find someone who actually still likes sitcoms, laugh track and all. Audiences are savvy. We like a good story to be told in an exceptional way. We don’t need standalone episodes stretched over 22 weeks. We are perfectly happy with Matthew McConaughey taking sips of Lone Star beer and rambling on about something for eight tense episodes.
Serialization is nothing new. Before television and films, the Victorians were mad about it. Novelists like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Wilkie Collins found their work offered up in installments in periodicals.1 Books were expensive, but more people could access fiction through magazines and newspapers. The contemporary reader might be cozying up to their 400-plus page copy of The Moonstone, but not when it was initially released. The story was gripping and readers waited week by week for their next bit to chomp down on. There is a reason it’s called sensation fiction.
As of this writing, we are up to episode eight. I’ve been trying to avoid any articles or conspiracy threads about the show or the case. I want to be completely enveloped in Koenig’s investigation without outside voices from the Internet world. So, in lieu of falling down a Reddit rabbit hole, I proffer a handful of twisty books that offer top-rate storytelling, looping plots, and unreliable narrators for other Serial addicts like myself. These reads will unspool and keep you gripped.2
1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. This is perhaps my favorite novel of 2013. Yanagihara’s debut was criminally overlooked, which still perplexes me. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist is imprisoned in the mid-1990s for sexual assault against some of the 43 children he’s adopted from a remote island he visited during a research exploration fifty years prior. The narrator is arrogant, shady, and unreliable, and the final page will leave you completely shocked.
2. Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. It’s the 1970s and Mike Engleby comes from a working class background, but wins a spot at a prestigious university in England. He tells you his strange story of his childhood and his even stranger perception of his life around him. A fellow co-ed he’s quietly obsessed with goes missing one day. As the years pass, the reader gets a sense that something isn’t right, but is it what we think?
3. The Lodger by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. If Alfred Hitchcock is adapting your novel into a movie, it’s a good sign you’ve penned a twisty tale. London author Belloc Lowndes lived through the Jack the Ripper time and used these horrible murders to influence her most famous work. Is the new lodger who moves sinisterly through the fog the cretin who’s guilty of all those murders?
4. “In A Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. This short story was the influence for Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashōmon. A samurai has been murdered in a grove. The story takes the form of various witness statements, which of course contradict each other in so many ways. *Probably an excellent first step for any Serial listeners who want a quick shot of something similar to the podcast.
5. The Dinner by Herman Koch. Do not read anything about this book before cracking the spine. Two married couples come together for dinner at a restaurant to discuss a mysterious and horrendous event. That is all I will say. Read it and thank me later.
6. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. A 75-year-old widow awakes one night thinking a tiger is loose in her house. She doesn’t see it, but she knows it’s there. The next morning, an unknown woman appears in her garden claiming to be a caregiver sent by the government. Nothing at all seems right.
7. “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce. Simply put, a murder has taken place and the narrative consists of three perspectives relating to the murder and at different moments in time leading up to it. *Like “In a Grove,” this story is also an excellent first step for any Serial listeners who want a quick shot of something similar to the podcast.
8. Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll. In the summer of 1978, an unknown arsonist is setting fire to the buildings of a small village in Norway. The arsonist becomes more emboldened and sets fire to homes with people still inside instead of just empty farmhouses. During this month, a baby is born named Gaute Heivoll, who as an adult, is trying to piece together why this person committed these crimes.
1. Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge. "The Plot Thickens: Toward a Narratological Analysis of Illustrated Serial Fiction in the 1860s,” Victorian Studies Vol. 51, No. 1 (Autumn, 2008): 65-101.
2. Some of these suggestions are available for free in the public domain through Project Gutenberg and other sources.