What do an accused killer and an accomplished writer have in common? More than one would suspect, as revealed in the engaging page-turner True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. The story begins with New York Times Magazine contributor Michael Finkel being fired after he is caught making up a source. Finkel is in a funk until he receives a call informing him that someone has stolen his identity. That someone turns out to be a suspected murderer named Christian Longo. For weeks, Longo has been in Mexico telling people he is writer Michael Finkel. Now Longo is under arrest, charged with killing his wife and three young children.
Intrigued, Finkel strikes up a relationship with Longo, periodically visiting him in prison while he awaits trial. But most of their dialogue occurs through the exchange of letters. A friendship develops as Longo writes lengthy letters describing the slow destruction of his career, his marriage and his family. But he stops short of confessing to the murders. Finkel, meanwhile, explains in his letters how the pressures of fame drove him to fabricate information in the magazine story.
Finkel and Longo develop an unlikely bond because they share several things in common: both admit to having been liars in the past, both now pledge to stop telling lies and both believe their relationship will lead to their redemption. Finkel believes his career will be revived by writing a book about Longo's life, while Longo believes the book will set the record straight.
True Story is hard to put down. Finkel employs his journalistic skills to write a clear, concise, fast-paced narrative that unfolds in a series of short chapters. The tale reads like a gripping mystery: the reader doesn't know until the final pages just how truthful Longo is, or whether he can convince a jury of his innocence. Meanwhile, Finkel grapples with his own ethical issues, and whether he can convince the public that he will now always tell the true story. John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.