Serial’s Strange Embrace: A 15-Year-Old Murder Mystery Captivates Millions

Have you been listening to Serial? Each week, millions of people anticipate the next episode of Serial, a podcast-turned-obsession produced by This American Life (TAL), which covers the investigation of a 15-year-old murder case. Serial has done a masterful job of pulling people into a real-life murder mystery, and I am one of those waiting for a new episode each Thursday. serial_logo

Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, a journalist and  executive producer working for TAL, who spent a year studying the case of Hae Min Lee, a well-liked Baltimore high school student who was murdered in 1999 at the age of eighteen. Lee’s body was discovered six weeks after she was murdered, buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park (often pronounced as Linkin Park). Leakin Park has a reputation as a hiding place for the dead. It has been said, “If you’re going to bury a body in Leakin Park, you’re going to find someone else’s.”   It is no place for anyone’s child.

Detectives investigated Hae Min Lee’s murder and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, found himself at the center of the inquiry. Before long, Adnan Syed, was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Many believe he was wrongly convicted while others say justice has been served.

The question remains, “Did Adnan Syed kill Hae Min Lee?”

Sarah Koenig’s storytelling skills are impressive and on full display each week. Her recorded telephone conversations with Adnan Syed from prison, as well as interviews with his friends and others who knew him, bring us close to the investigation. Koenig’s analysis helps us realize that she isn’t sure about the truth, either. Each week moves us back and forth on the pendulum swing between guilt and reasonable doubt, even innocence. Each week’s episode has caused controversy, discussion and a broader conversation regarding what should be used to prosecute capital murder cases.

Serial includes a number of discoveries and twists, which I won’t spoil in this post. For those of us who are interested in studying skilled storytelling, consider enrolling in Koenig’s class by listening to this podcast. While many have proclaimed podcasts a medium with little growth potential, Serial has proven otherwise. QuestionsKoenig is clear that she isn’t too far ahead of us in her weekly recordings. They didn’t have the entire season ‘in the can’ before Episode 1 aired, and we can feel the uncertainty as she discusses the case with experts and others involved, including a juror who served on Adnan Syed’s trial.

Koenig reads from Hae Min Lee’s diary and re-traces routes and timelines testified to in court. In her hands, the story unfolds in such a way that even some who feel they know the case are surprised by what she finds. The one thing that has stayed with me throughout my listening journey, apart from the horrific reality that a young woman was murdered and her family forever damaged by living with unfair reality, is that the way in which Adnan Syed was convicted. While I haven’t read the court transcripts, what we have learned so far is concerning. Did Syed commit the crime? Was the evidence used to convict him sufficient?  The issue is being hotly debated at water coolers and cafes across the country.

And with good reason.

Serial achieves a quality of storytelling rarely found in the true crime genre, and the result is a podcast that has broken iTunes records, becoming the fastest downloaded podcast to reach 5 million listeners. It’s a nod to old-style crime radio but with the contemporary twist. Its success has brought new attention to the case as well as some backlash criticism that a murder case should not be used for the public’s entertainment. These are curious waters to navigate but the exploration of true crime stories has been an industry for some time. Serial has simply found a way to connect with listeners in a compelling manner. As mystery writers, while we may be inspired by certain events, our work is fiction. No people or animals are harmed in the process of creating our stories. However, in Serial’s world, we are listening to an investigation involving real lives and real suffering, a viscerally violent foundation upon which this new American obsession rests.

The victim, Hae Min Lee, as reported by friends, was smart, funny and full of promise. She left this world far too soon and the space she has left open in her family’s hearts will never be filled. Yes, Serial is compelling, in large part, because of the real lives affected, because the stakes are high, because so much mystery remains in this case. Let us remember those people at the center of this reality. They are not characters–they are real people carrying this burden, long after each episode has ended.

To learn more about Serial, visit

Serial logo property of This American Life.

–Laura Oles

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