Dotty Winters thought she’d read all there was to read about Adnan Syed before she picked up Rabia Chaudry’s new book. Contains spoilers.
Stories of crime, murder and intrigue have always fascinated the public, but over the past few years, attention has turned away from looking at the perpetrators to an increased focus on the actions of the criminal justice system and the ways in which it can let down victims and defendants alike through wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice.
Netflix’s astonishing Making a Murderer docu-series may be one of the most recent to take the Twittersphere by storm, but it stood on the shoulders of a long line of previous true-story eye-openers, including The Thin Blue Line and West of Memphis. Perhaps the most famous of this stable is Serial, the cultural phenomenon of 2014.
Listeners to Serial were gripped by the story of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, and the case that led to the conviction of Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend. Week by week, twists and details were released, as the stories of Syed and the principal witness, Jay Wilds, were uncovered.
The series presented a perfect and unsolvable dichotomy: Either Syed was lying or Jay was. Except that simply wasn’t the case, and for many who follow the case, the information which has been released since the end of Serial has been the real start of the story; most notably, the podcast Undisclosed, co-hosted by Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of the Syeds and the person who took the story to Serial’s Sarah Koenig in the first place.
Chaudry’s book Adnan’s Story promised to provide even more insight into the case, the impact of the conviction and the process by which a series of podcasts began to make legal history. Overall, it delivers on that promise.
I’m a little obsessed with the Hae Min Lee murder case; I’ve listened to the Serial, Undisclosed and Truth & Justice podcasts (along with a few others), read case notes and transcripts online, had a haiku I wrote about the post-conviction-relief hearing accidentally published in The Guardian; you know, the usual.
Despite this, I paused before deciding to read any more about Adnan Syed. I was worried that I might have heard all there was to hear. I worried that this book would simply rehash the well-trodden facts of this case. I was wrong, and for that reason I’m surprised to have to report, that if you haven’t already read it, there are spoilers ahead.
I’ve long admired Chaudry’s determination, fire and good humour, but after reading this book I’d add her honesty. Where Undisclosed made a point of including legal detail and fact which hadn’t been included in Serial (and in doing so, revealed that the story was dramatically different, but no less compelling than the one presented), this book includes emotional depth and human trauma which didn’t fit in other formats.
“To me, the real power of this book was the additional insight it gave into the impact of Syed’s conviction on his family. Like many people who’ve followed this case, I’ve tried to hold Lee’s family in my heart and thoughts, and I’ve also been touched by Syed’s plight.”
Despite this, Chaudry resists the temptation to throw a pity-party, and includes information of interest, regardless of whether it paints her, or indeed Syed, in a good light. Of particular interest to Serial fans will be the segment which details (almost) blow by blow the disagreements between Chaudry and Koenig both throughout the production of Serial and since.
To her credit, Chaudry is clear and sincere in her gratitude to Koenig for her role in bringing this case to public attention, but pulls no punches in airing her frustration at the way information was excluded and edited to create intrigue. Equally intriguing is the inclusion of information about Syed’s marriage, and the in-prison enterprise he ran which allowed him to raise $10,000.
Both Serial and Undisclosed touched on issues of racial bias in the prosecution’s decisions to pursue Syed as a suspect, and in the presentation of evidence at trial, but this book provides both more detail, and more depth on this topic.
While I am not religious myself (and have little patience for organised religions of any type) I did admire Chaudry’s decision to present an unashamedly Muslim perspective, including quotes from the Qu’ran and representing a range of perspectives, choices and beliefs from her community. The State’s case against Syed relied on a narrow and false representation of Islam; Chaudry’s book provides welcome and timely reminders of the breadth of the religion and the cultural realities for young Muslims growing up in America.
I found the inclusion of the not-psychic/psychic story frustrating. Doubtless many will be intrigued by this detail, but it is clear that this story was retold after many of the details of the case were publicly available, and to my mind, adds neither to the narrative nor the pursuit of truth.
To me, the real power of this book was the additional insight it gave into the impact of Syed’s conviction on his family. Like many people who’ve followed this case, I’ve tried to hold Lee’s family in my heart and thoughts, and I’ve also been touched by Syed’s plight.
This book broadened that circle to help me to understand just how devastating the impact of this case has been on Syed’s parents and siblings, and on his wider community.
It is testament to Chaudry’s warmth, passion and propensity for being a badass that this book succeeds in informing and moving the reader without ever throwing a pity-party or resorting to mawkishness.
If you’ve followed the case, this book is well worth a read for those looking to incorporate new perspectives. If you haven’t followed the case, get on it: Start with Serial, progress to Undisclosed, read the book, then invite me round for a cuppa so we can talk about it all.
Adnan’s Story is published by Century.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.