True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

by Michael Finkel


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True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060580483
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/15/2006
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 281,462
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About 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.

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.

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True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
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!
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
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sad subject, but interesting.
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.