Author Daniel Sweren-Becker must have been well tuned in to the zeitgeist when he conceived Kill Show, his newly published mysteryl that delves into important critiques of the true crime genre. Written in the style of a television documentary script, the novel consists almost entirely of short verbatim quotes from 26 of the story’s principals, with no descriptions unless a character happens to provide one. The principals are being re-interviewed a decade after the events they’re called upon to explore. The book is their testimony.
Ten years earlier, in suburban Frederick County, Maryland, 16-year-old Sara Parcell disappeared. Her parents and brother panicked. Her friends were bereft. School officials tried to console. Local police were baffled. Now, as they talk about Sara, her family, the community, the disappearance and its aftermath, they amplify, contextualize, and at times contradict each other. Piece by piece, the story comes into focus.
In the emotional turmoil immediately after Sara’s disappearance, her dad, Dave Parcell, waves his bank statement in front of the cameras camped outside his home. He has $1762. That’s all. But he’ll put it every dollar of it up for a reward. A dramatic moment the news cameras catch, but not as viral as the cell-phone video Sara’s brother Jack makes a few moments later, showing Dave and his wife Jeannette back in their house, embracing, Jeannette in hysterics.
Across the country in Hollywood, Jack’s video sparks a brilliant programming idea in the head of Casey Hawthorne, a reality TV show producer. She convinces her boss to pay for her and a production crew to fly to Maryland, and then convinces the Parcell family that a reality television series—Searching for Sara—will bring massive attention to the disappearance and help get their daughter back.
They are desperate. They agree. To say Casey Hawthorne is full of herself, manipulative, and not to be trusted hardly describes the extent of the void in her character. Once in Maryland, right at the start, she makes a strategic choice that negatively influences everything that comes afterward. She meets Detective Felix Calderon in a bar, and, rather than revealing who she is and why she’s really in town, she lies. And sleeps with him. As a result, when aspects of the case start to deteriorate, the lead detective on the case has no credibility with the public, his superiors in the police department, or the prosecutor.
Of course, many more people involved in this debacle are lying. And, if not lying outright, they’re not telling the whole truth, or they’re shading it to justify their actions. Many characters undergo a shift in perspective over the course of the weeks the search drags on and shocking revelations emerge; others seem incapable of taking new information on board. In the end, quite a few Frederick County residents have reason to take a hard look at the role they played in the outcome.
When Sweren-Becker wants to delve into ethical grey areas, he provides comments from a pop culture critic or a sociology professor. In that way too, the novel reads very much like a real-life television documentary. This device never becomes tedious or heavy-handed. Meanwhile, in real life, true-crime dramas have come in for criticism, even though they’re still immensely popular. (A 2014 13-episode podcast, Serial, also about the murder of a Maryland teenager was downloaded more than 340 million times in the first four years of its availability.) Sweren-Becker’s story effectively demonstrates the main critiques of the genre: exploiting real people for entertainment, looking for sensation rather than examining systemic problems, and objectifying victims. Casey Hawthorne’s Searching for Sara is definitely guilty on the first two counts. If you have your own reservations about the public obsession with true-crime shows, this book will confirm them. Partly due to the format and partly to the compelling situation, this is a quick read, yet a profound one. Highly recommended.
More critique of the true-crime phenomenon are in my recent blog post: “Is peak true crime in the rearview?”