“Reporter solves murder” is a reliable trope for movies, mysteries, and television. But trust me: It’s tougher than it looks on the screen or the page. In real life it rarely happens.
Yet the durable trope appears again in Matt Witten’s novel Killer Story.
The novel begins well, with the story of Petra Kovach, a child of Bosnian immigrants, a classic striver from East L.A. who earned a scholarship to UCLA, where she co-edited The Daily Bruin, the campus daily paper.
These days, men writing in a woman’s voice can be problematic, but Witten, a television writer and novelist, brings it off without seeming intrusive.
Petra, who narrates, is motivated, she says, by a search for truth, but also a yearning for fame. Her goal is to be an investigative journalist for the New York Times. Petra proclaims that journalists are “ambassadors for the truth. It’s a sacred duty.” If only.
As a realistic portrait of journalism in the last decade, the narrative shines, portraying a bleak and getting bleaker landscape of failing regional and local newspapers. As she notes, journalism is “a now-dying business.”
Still, Petra manages to get entry level jobs at small newspapers in Mississippi and Montana, only to be laid off from both. A promising job with a Pacific Northwest news and feature internet startup crashes and burns. What she thinks is her last chance is as a reporter with the “other” Boston daily, the Clarion.
Although Petra is hard working and productive, when she receives a call from her editor, she rightly surmises it is to inform her of another layoff, which she fears will end her nascent career—at 29.
A common belief in journalism is that it is possible to write yourself out of whatever hole you got yourself in with your superiors. Sometimes it works.
In desperation, Petra falsely claims to have a beat on an infamous, unsolved, Cambridge murder, of a Harvard student that Petra knew from a summer journalism program at UCLA. At Harvard the young woman had become a right-wing internet phenomenon until her murder.
With her personal connection and special insight, she tells the editor, she will solve the cold case, which has been dubbed—like so many before and since—“The Murder of the Century.”
Naturally—and realistically—the victim is an attractive, middle class, young white woman, so the killing becomes front page and cable television news, at least until the chief suspect, an older professor who was her lover, is tried but acquitted.
Somewhat naively, Petra’s goal is simple. “I would use the power of the press to force the police to act,” she thinks. Again, if only.
And it is here that the novel begins to slip its traces.
Acceding to Petra’s plea, the editor gives her two weeks to deliver the story, both in print and in a new podcast, a medium she knows nothing about.
The editor’s podcast offer, an order really, recalls a moment in recent history when some thought the true crime podcast—like the revolutionary “Serial”—would be the vehicle to save long form journalism (Witten says he is “a huge fan” of this true crime genre). This was before so many people got the same idea that the market was flooded with them, cannibalizing the audience.
At this point, after a promising start, Killer Story detours into unreality and even fantasy.
Suddenly, the narrative lurches into breathless silliness in the tone of a bad Young Adult novel: Nancy Drew, Girl Reporter (and Erstwhile Sociopath).
Petra’s first “scoop,” in both her news story and her podcast, is an anonymous, unsubstantiated allegation of incest against the victim’s stepfather, whom the reporter names. No experienced editor and, more importantly, no newspaper’s lawyer would allow either a news story or a podcast to air with a charge like that. It’s the very definition of “reckless disregard for the truth”—the legal standard for libel.
Following on this “triumph,” Petra outs a closeted football player with the goal of being drafted by the NFL.
Petra then proceeds to burn her sources, breaching promised anonymity. She engages in illegal wiretapping, evidence tampering, obstruction of justice, illegal entry, and reporting based on sealed juvenile justice records, which is also illegal.
In the real world of journalism, any one of these breaches would be a career ender, but not for Petra.
Petra also lies—compulsively and reflexively—not only to her editor, but to her sources, her colleagues, the police, and even her boyfriend. A subplot devolves into a newsroom catfight.
Petra feigns support for the suspects she interviews. (Yes, some corner-cutting journalists do this, and some don’t, but they never do it in writing, in an email.) She crosses all sorts of lines, including the judicious use of extortion.
To be fair, Petra acknowledges doubts about her ethical (and legal) breaches, but inevitably she overcomes them in pursuit of her story.
“Sometimes that means manipulating people, and it can get a little bit ugly, but when it’s the only way to get to the truth,” she says, “you justify it to yourself.”
At another point, she admits, “I’d already done enough deceiving and exaggerating for one day.”
Still, there is one thing Witten does get right: the reluctance of cops to be dissuaded from their theory of a criminal case, even if their preferred suspect has been acquitted.
Ultimately, Killer Story’s value may be as a cautionary tale—what not to do as a young journalist.
In the Author’s Note Witten explains that his inspiration for writing the book comes from, and is dedicated to “all the men and women I know in their twenties who are fiercely dedicated to going into journalism despite the huge obstacles they face.”
As long as they don’t try to overcome these obstacles the way Petra Kovach does.