S-Town: the mystery at the heart of this cult podcast is not the one you think

The story of John B. McLemore and a small town in Alabama is wonderfully strange - and totally unnerving. 

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In the pre-credits sequence of the first instalment of S-Town, producer and presenter Brian Reed tells us about the difficulty of fixing an antique clock – one so old that no plans exist for it, leaving its repairer dependent on the dents or scratches left by previous work or lost machinery.

“I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening,” Reed tells us:

You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that’ll likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got is these vague witness marks that might not even mean what you think they mean. At every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time. Or not.

Anyway. I only learned about all this because years ago an antique clock restorer contacted me, John B. McLemore, and asked me to help him solve a murder...

It’s an incredibly clever introduction. Because the new podcast, all seven chapters of which were released simultaneously last week, comes from the same people as 2014’s runaway hit, Serial – and at first hearing, Reed’s opening lines suggest we’re in for another true crime drama.

But that’s not what S-Town is at all. Those witness marks don’t mean what you think they mean.

******

It’s impossible to talk about what S-Town is actually doing without spoiling its two big twists, both of which come in episode two – so in a moment, I’m going to do just that. If you don’t want to know what they are, close the window now, and come back when you’ve finished listening.

Just so you don’t see them accidentally, here’s a map of Bibb County Alabama, home to Woodstock, the S-Town – a R-rated abbreviation of “Shit Town” – that John B. McLemore loved and hates so much:

Okay, so those twists. The smaller is that there was no murder: Reed spends the first chapter and a half of the podcast investigating a crime that never, in fact, took place. By that point, though, the murder already feels pretty incidental, and it’s clear that the real story is about other things.

One of them is Shit Town itself. Woodstock is a rural southern community of the sort that rarely gets more than the most cursory attention. It’s a place where a local business goes by the name K3 Lumber, and its owner laughingly declines the opportunity to deny that it’s a reference to the Klan; the sort of place where a young guy is happy to talk on the record to a New York radio producer about the time he thought he’d beaten some guy to death, but, luckily, it turned out he hadn’t. I don’t know where you are as you’re reading these words, but the odds are it’s not somewhere like Woodstock.

The other point of the story is John B. McLemore himself: a gay, intellectual horologist who doesn’t quite seem to fit in Alabama, a 48-year-old man who hates his town and everything it stands for yet has always refused to move out.

We’re just getting used to him being our guide to this alien world – he may be convinced that civilisation is on the verge of collapse, but he is, ostensibly, a liberal – when the second twist comes. At the close of chapter 2, Reed receives a call telling him that McLemore has killed himself. There are five episodes left, there’s no crime to solve, and we’re now immersed in this alien world without a guide.

The episodes following McLemore’s death are packed with incident: his funeral, and the feud over his property which follows, which makes it as far as the courts; an exploration of his past and his sexuality; some discussion of the various, terrifyingly real apocalyptic events which he saw coming down the track towards humanity.

But the podcast isn’t exactly about any of those things, and none of them really get resolved. The argument about McLemore’s legacy is still ongoing; the stuff about the past still speculative. The apocalypse, while looming, has yet to take place.

Yet despite this almost complete lack of denouement, the whole thing feels like a more compelling and satisfying story than I’ve encountered, in any medium, in a long time.

***

It’s several days since I finished listening to S-Town and I’m still not exactly sure how to explain or describe it. It’s not just that it isn’t like Serial: it doesn’t really conform to any of the conventions of serial storytelling that I’m used to.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain to anyone what it’s about and why someone should give it a go, I’ve struggled, and fallen back on, “Oh just listen. Trust me.” That’s obviously not enough here, though, so I’m going to try to distil its appeal.

Part of it, I think, is the world it explores. Woodstock is exactly the sort of proverbial southern shithole that most other Americans look down on, and which most self-respecting Europeans would be terrified of. The police are mildly corrupt; the people are hugely racist. Last year Donald Trump won Bibb County by 77  per cent to 21.4, and I’m genuinely surprised to find that Hillary did that well. This place is exactly what you think it is.

Except, S-Town reminds us that it’s not just what we think it is: time and again, it shows us a stereotype, then reveals a human being. John’s friend Tyler is the kind of redneck who genuinely sees locking someone in a shed and threatening to cut their fingers off as a legitimate way of settling a dispute. He’s also one of the most kind and loving and sympathetic characters in the whole thing, and once the feud about John’s legacy kicks off we find ourselves desperately rooting for the guy.

The other half of that feud is a money-grabbing McLemore cousins, who swoops in from Florida the moment she scents a legacy. Except it turns out she’s not really like that either, and suddenly we don’t know how we want this thing to turn out. S-Town is like one of those huge Victorian social novels or, more recently, J.K.Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: one of those books that constantly persuades us to sympathise with people we might otherwise dismiss.

The other part of S-Town’s appeal is a literary one, too: the various conceits it uses to illuminate character and theme. The idea of horology, that’s there at the start, runs throughout. So do ideas of place, and family, and legacy, and the sheer fragility of human existence. The result is like a novel – not a thriller, like Serial was, but something altogether deeper, more literary and more haunting. It may be significant that it comes in “chapters”, rather than “episodes”.

There’s been some debate about whether S-Town should ever have been made at all. The murder it begins with may not have been real; but the suicide at its heart was, and many of its central characters are still walking around. Some have argued that repackaging real lives as entertainment may be crossing some line.

But the media does that all the time: as news, as reality TV, as other podcasts. At least S-Town turns those lives into something truly new and original. John B. McLemore is still dead; but now, he gets to be art, too.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.