True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa
by Michael Finkel
Too Good to Be Fiction
A review by Anna Godbersen
The good name of journalists has been much tarnished as of late, but in the case of Michael Finkel's memoir-by-way-of-true-crime-tale, a breach of journalistic ethics is the beginning, not the end, of the story. In 2001, Finkel, an ambitious, rising staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, exaggerated the details of a piece on poverty in West African cocoa plantations and, far worse, created a composite character from several different sources. He seems to have gotten away with it, until February 2002, when his deceit comes to light, and he is humiliatingly, gut-wrenchingly fired. But this is when events turn really odd: In retreat in Montana, Finkel discovers that someone else has been making good use of his sullied name. One Christian Longo, ex-Jehovah's Witness, ex-Starbucks employee, suspect in the murders of his wife and three young children, has just been arrested outside Cancun, where he had been hanging out and calling himself Michael Finkel of the New York Times. Longo, it seems, is a fan. This connection is enough to spark a jailhouse correspondence, which soon develops into the "Chris and Mike project," a relationship of shady, ungraspable motives.
True Story, however, is Finkel's chance to come clean, and he is -- at least in print -- scrupulously honest about his motives. He writes that he enjoyed his relationship with a probable murderer because, post-firing, "Longo was the only person in my life I felt morally superior to." And there is also the writing bug. Finkel is still a journalist at heart, doggedly pursuing a story, and he goes on to unpack both Longo's and his own. This is less of a poker game than it sounds; the author, it turns out, has been out-lied by his subject many, many times over. What does emerge is the story, carefully structured, rigorously reported, and fascinating till the end.
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