True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

4.3 15
by Michael Finkel
     
 

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In 2001, Mike Finkel was on top of the world: young, talented, and recently promoted to a plum job at the New York Times Magazine. A few months later, he made an irremediable slip: Under extraordinary pressure to keep producing blockbuster stories, he fabricated parts of an article about slavery on cocoa plantations in West Africa. Caught and excommunicated from the

Overview

In 2001, Mike Finkel was on top of the world: young, talented, and recently promoted to a plum job at the New York Times Magazine. A few months later, he made an irremediable slip: Under extraordinary pressure to keep producing blockbuster stories, he fabricated parts of an article about slavery on cocoa plantations in West Africa. Caught and excommunicated from the Times, he retreated to his home in Montana, swearing off any contact with the media.

When the phone rang, though, he couldn't resist. At the other end was a reporter from the Portland Oregonian, whom Finkel congratulated on being the first in what was sure to be a long and bloodthirsty line of media watchdogs. The reporter was puzzled. Finkel asked him if he wasn't calling about the Times' editor's note about his firing, due to run that same night.

"No," he said. "I'm calling about the murders."

While Finkel had been concocting his fiction, another man was perpetrating a far darker one of his own. In Waldport, Oregon, Christian Longo had killed his young wife and three children and dumped their bodies into the bay. With a stolen credit card, he fled south, making his way to Cancun, where he lived for several weeks under an assumed identity. The name and career he chose for himself was that of Michael Finkel, journalist for the New York Times.

True Story is the tale of a bizarre and convoluted collision between fact and fiction, and a meditation on the slippery nature of truth. When Finkel contacts Longo in jail, the two men begin a close and complex relationship, acting by turns as confessors, buddies, and adversaries, each maneuvering to get something from the other. Over the course of a year, they exchange long letters and weekly phone calls, playing out a cat-and-mouse game in which it's never quite clear if the pursuer is Finkel or Longo - or both. Finkel's dogged pursuit of the true story pays off only at the end, in the gripping trial scenes in which Longo, after a lifetime of deception, finally tells the whole truth. Or so he says.

Editorial Reviews

This is the story of a strange convergence. At the moment he received the phone call, journalist Michael Finkel was on the verge of public disgrace. Just a few days earlier, he had been caught fabricating parts of a story that he had written for The New York Times Magazine. Fired by the paper, he had retreated to his home in Montana. When the phone rang, he assumed that somebody in the media was tracking his misdeed. Instead, the call alerted him to an even more bizarre collision of fact and fiction: Michael Finkel learned that a man who had killed four people had assumed his identity. This aptly titled book describes how a small-time fibber pursued the elusive truth.
Publishers Weekly
In 2001, Finkel fabricated portions of an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine. Caught and fired, he retreated to his Montana home, only to learn that a recently arrested suspected mass murderer had adopted his identity while on the run in Mexico. In this astute and hypnotically absorbing memoir, Finkel recounts his subsequent relationship with the accused, Christian Longo, and recreates not only Longo's crimes and coverups but also his own. In doing so, he offers a startling meditation on truth and deceit and the ease with which we can slip from one to the other. The narrative consists of three expertly interwoven strands. One details the decision by Finkel, under severe pressure, to lie within the Times article ironic since the piece aimed to debunk falsehoods about rampant slavery in Africa's chocolate trade and explores the personal consequences (loss of credibility, ensuing despair) of that decision. The second, longer strand traces Longo's life, marked by incessant lying and petty cheating, and the events leading up to the slayings of his wife and children. The third narrative strand covers Finkel's increasingly involved ties to Longo, as the two share confidences (and also lies of omission and commission) via meetings, phone calls and hundreds of pages of letters, leading up to Longo's trial and a final flurry of deceit by which Longo attempts to offload his guilt. Many will compare this mea culpa to those of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, but where those disgraced journalists led readers into halls of mirrors, Finkel's creation is all windows. There are, notably, no excuses offered, only explanations, and there's no fuzzy boundary between truth and deceit: a lie is a lie. Because of Finkel's past transgression, it's understandable that some will question if all that's here is true; only Finkel can know for sure, but there's a burning sincerity (and beautifully modulated writing) on every page, sufficient to convince most that this brilliant blend of true-crime and memoir does live up to its bald title. 4-city author tour. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Truth is most assuredly stranger than fiction. A week after Finkel was fired from the New York Times for writing a partially fictionalized Magazine cover story, he learned that Christian Longo, who fled Oregon upon murdering his wife and three children, had been telling acquaintances that he was Michael Finkel from the New York Times. In a surreal plot twist, the two men established a bond through a series of letters, prison visits, and phone calls. Finkel interweaves Longo's story with that of his own career and public disgrace at the Times, contrasting the murderer's pathological lies with his own act of fictionalization to stunning effect. Finkel's insider information and unique perspective make this book preferable to Carlton Smith's Love, Daddy, and the perspective of the disgraced author is a compelling addition. Essential for regional collections and a good choice for all public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/05.]-Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A disgraced New York Times reporter seeks out an accused murderer who'd been using the reporter's identity while evading U.S. authorities in Mexico. A marriage of convenience perhaps, but not one made in heaven. Indeed, by the time we've consumed this eminently readable if sour-tasting story, we have little sympathy for either the narcissistic Christian Longo, accused of murdering his wife and three children in December of 2001, or for Finkel, the journalist who sought out Longo with an eye toward writing the book at hand. Finkel learned of Longo within hours of being fired from the Times Magazine for fabricating parts of a story about workers in the Ivory Coast. Anyone can make a mistake, of course. But it doesn't raise our level of empathy when Finkel confides that he's been an inveterate liar most of his life ("The West Africa article wasn't my first blatant deception. I'd lied many times: to bolster my credentials, to elicit sympathy, to make myself appear less ordinary"). During long correspondence and weekly phone calls before Longo's trial, the pair forge a relationship based largely on mutual need. Longo needs someone to talk to; Finkel needs someone to write about. So we follow glumly along as Longo describes his descent from husband to thief to check forger to fugitive, portraying himself as a poor father struggling against one economic setback after the next. Longo insists he's innocent of murder, even as his self-serving story becomes more transparent and nauseating. Finkel, meanwhile, already less skeptical than he should be, weaves in an account of his own firing, highlighting the pressures that led to his fabrications. Ultimately, both Longo's and Finkel's stories seem toshare a common thread: rationalization of their misdeeds. There's a morbid fascination in following Longo's descent, and Finkel (Alpine Circus, 1999) tells the tawdry tale in crisp journalist's prose. But the result leaves us feeling used, and certainly no better for having met either figure.
Jeffrey Toobin
Always fascinating, sometimes funny, often very weird . . . simply terrific from the first page to the last.
Outside Magazine
A memoir as creepy as it is compelling...expertly and suspensefully told.
Esquire
“Carefully structured, rigorously reported, and fascinating till the end.”
Washington Post Book World
Combines crime and intellectual heft...could well become a classic of the genre.
New York Newsday
A riveting, disturbing and magnificent merging of two men at their lowest moments.
Boston Globe
A compulsively readable amorality tale.
Outside magazine
A memoir as creepy as it is compelling...expertly and suspensefully told.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060580476
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
05/24/2005
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

Chapter One

This is a true story. Sometimes -- pretty much all the time -- I wish that parts of this story weren't true, but the whole thing is. I feel the need to emphasize this truthfulness, right here at the start, for two reasons. The first is that a few of the coincidences in this account may seem beyond the bounds of probability, and I'd like to affirm that everything herein, to the best of my abilities, has been accurately reported: Every quote, every description, every detail was gathered by me either through personal observation, an interview, a letter, a police report, or evidence presented in a court of law. No names have been changed, no identifying specifics altered. Anything I did not feel certain of, I left out.

The second reason is painful for me to admit. The second reason I am making such an overt declaration of honesty is that, relatively recently, I was fired from one of the more prestigious journalism jobs in the world -- writer for the New York Times Magazine -- for passing off as true a story that was, instead, a deceptive blend of fact and fiction.

The firing occurred in February of 2002, soon after I was caught. The following week, on February 21, the Times made my dismissal public by publishing a six-paragraph article, on page A-3, under the headline EDITORS' NOTE. The article's final line announced that I would no longer work for the New York Times -- a line that, I feared, represented the guillotining of my writing career.

Sure enough, within weeks of the appearance of the Editors' Note, I was flogged by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, an Associated Press report, a dozen different web sites, several European, Mexican, and South American papers, and in a four-minute report on National Public Radio. One writer described my actions as "sleazy," "arrogant," "offensive," and "pernicious," and then concluded that people like me should "burn in Journalism Hell."


I had been informed of the contents of the Editors' Note a few days before its publication, and I'd assumed that responses of this sort might arise. When someone in the fraternity of journalists fails, it's important for the profession to demonstrate that it can be at least as fierce toward its own as it is toward others. So I devised a plan to shield myself. Once the note was made public, I would retreat into a kind of temporary hibernation: I would not answer my phone, or collect my mail, or check my e-mail. The Editors' Note, I figured, would be posted on the Times' online edition shortly before midnight on February 20, 2002. I live in Montana, where the local time is two hours behind New York, so I determined that I would commence my hibernation at 10 P.M.

Less than ninety minutes before the cutoff time, my phone rang. I answered. It was a newspaper reporter for the Portland Oregonian; his name, he said, was Matt Sabo. He asked to speak with Michael Finkel of the New York Times. I took a breath, steeled myself, and said, resignedly, "Well, congratulations. You're the first to call."

"I'm the first?" he said. "I'm surprised."

"Yes," I said. "You're the first. I didn't think anyone would call until tomorrow, after the story runs."

"No," he told me, "the story isn't running until Sunday."

"No," I said, "it's running tomorrow -- it's already at the presses."

"But I'm still writing it," he said, "so it won't be in until Sunday."

"What are you talking about?" I said.

"What are you talking about?" he said.

"I'm talking about the Editors' Note," I said. "Isn't that what you're talking about?"

"No," he said. "I'm calling about the murders."

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Copyright © by Michael Finkel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Jeffrey Toobin
Always fascinating, sometimes funny, often very weird . . . simply terrific from the first page to the last.

Meet the Author

Michael Finkel has written for National Geographic, GQ, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in western Montana.

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True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read it in 24 hours...couldn't put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What an awesome book. I don't understand some of the negative reviews. This book was well written and a compelling read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in one day. I couldn't put it down. And when I was done, I couldn't stop thinking about it!
Anonymous 8 months ago
Sad subject, but interesting.
JerseyShoreGirlLG More than 1 year ago
I love how this book is written. The characters are introduced both at not-so wonderful times in their lives. In an odd way, they begin to connect with one another to tell their powerful story. I highly recommend this!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A journalistic account of the murder of three children and their mother. A gripping story about how a web of lies can turn your whole world upside down. An easy read that should give you something to read for about a week, but will leave you thinking about it for months to come.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I didnt buy it but i saw this and i decided to go to the library to try it. Well turns out this is real. Like, really real. Ever single comment and detail actually happened. It gives real brand names, places, and what shocked me-NAMES!!! I think this author wrote this book to try to persuade people to belive his side of the story. Its about a husband who kills his family. And he kills the kids by tieing a pillowcase of rocks to the kids ankles. And throwing them in the river! If you want a chiller story that shocks you and has you gripped and saying "WOW! That happened?" Than this book is definetly for you. And if you are uneasy about it, thats fine. You can just get a free trial or even read the book from the library.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book held me captivated from the start. I think Michael Finkle really dug deep into the soul of a murderer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very intriquing. Listening to a professed liar tell the truth given to him by a professed liar/murderer is very...interesting. Michael Finkel has earned a second chance in writing/journalism. Christian Longo's story is very difficult because the author admits he doesnt know how much truth Longo is actually giving him. I'm not sure what to believe. The story of the murders of Longo's family is very sad and hearing Longo's lies about it are very disturbing. Michael Finkel knows he cannot lie again in writing so taking on the job of reporting on Longo's life is quite daunting because that man can lie. I'm not sure how much of the fast read was because of the intrique of the story and how much was how it was written. The book was definitely good to read, by I'm glad that I didn't pay full price for it. Good Library pick but maybe not a keeper.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Both the writer and the protagonist in this self-serving 'true story' are loathesome. But at least the writer had the grace to present himself honestly. Still, I wish I hadn't spent the money to go into either of their pockets. Ick ick eww.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Keep going! Go to bavin result three! -Miah