The latest true crime podcast from Serial is set in Laramie, Wyoming. The New York Times journalist Kim Barker is from Laramie, and remembers it as an exceptionally “grim” town – worse than the war zones she reported from in Islamabad or Kabul. While Barker was at high school in 1985, a woman named Shelli Wiley was murdered and her house set on fire. The case was unsolved for years. In 2016, a suspect was arrested, and even confessed – but then, strangely, was released.
This set-up will be familiar to all those who have dipped into the ever-expanding genre of true crime – a cold case, police failures, new evidence, a disputed suspect. Like others, this series does not dramatise the murder itself, but the journalist’s hunt for information years later: the tracking down of witnesses or other contacts, attempts to persuade them to talk on the record. It’s atmospherically produced and, I suppose, bleakly interesting. But ultimately it all feels hollow.
Barker had the idea in 2020. Going “stir crazy” in lockdown, she “also owed my newspaper some story ideas and, truthfully, I was tapped out. So with a special kind of desperation, I googled Shelli’s name.” If this is meant to be self-aware, I merely found it jarring. “I doubted this was a story my editor would be into,” she says, unconvincingly – it’s clearly the stuff of the genre. “But I figured, what’s the harm in making some calls?”
The harm of true crime, is, of course, well documented: dragging victims’ families through a media circus, usually for little resolution. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Barker – like so many concerned-sounding, slickly-produced journalists before her – can’t solve this crime. Nor is this a case study illustrative of a wider scandal (unless you count the discovery that the police, in 1980s Wyoming, were both misogynistic and racist). So why are we here, in a grim town rehashing a grim story once again? By Barker’s own admission, we are brought here by the media’s “desperation” for yet more content, and the relentless drive to find another story from which audiences cannot look away.
The Coldest Case in Laramie
Serial/New York Times
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission