Book review

True Story by Michael Finkel


The cover says it all: “Just as I was fired from a job I had coveted almost all my life, I learned about the murders. A man named Christian Longo, who was wanted for killing his wife and three young children, had fled to Mexico. He’d been hiding out there, pretending to be a writer for The New York Times – pretending, in fact, to be me.”

The book “True Story” by Michael Finkel is one of just a few in my home library that I’ve read more than once. I like it so much, in fact, that I give it to friends, none of whom has reacted as strongly to it as I did.

The book opens with New York Times reporter Michael Finkel feeling sorry for himself. He’d been fired from his job because he faked sources, made up quotes, fabricated a story and got caught. For a journalist, this is pretty much the root of all evil. He believed he’d never work as a writer again, and that wasn’t such a far-fetched assumption. He’d turned off his phone for a couple of days, and when he decided to turn it back on again, he got a call from a reporter seeking a quote.

He wasn’t surprised; he knew he’d be the subject of a news story – but he didn’t know why.

Turns out that Christian Longo, an Oregon man unknown to Finkel, killed his wife and children, cut up their bodies and put them in suitcases and threw them in the river. He then fled the country and posed as Michael Finkel, one of his favorite travel writers from The New York Times. Longo had been nabbed in Mexico in 2002 after a few weeks on the run, and the reporter wanted a quote from Finkel about how it felt to have one’s identity stolen.

Finkel then set out to contact Longo – now on Oregon’s Death Row – and earned the criminal’s trust. He did several jailhouse interviews and redeemed himself as a writer who was faced with a story he couldn’t pass up. This time he told the truth, even expressing vulnerability when it came to his odd relationship with a convicted murderer.

The book is simply fascinating; you can’t make this stuff up. It later was made into a movie with Jonah Hill and James Franco, and please do not waste your time watching that garbage. But the book … the book is one of the best.

Aside from “Catcher in the Rye,” “On Writing” by Stephen King and maybe a self-help book or two, there are not many tomes on my shelf that I’ve read more than once. I feel pretty strongly that if I read a book a week from now until I die, I’m probably not going to finish reading everything on my list, so I don’t have a lot of time to waste on reading the same book more than once.

“True Story” is the exception. I’ve mentioned in this column that I’m a rather slow reader. I think I knocked out this one in a couple of days. It’s that good.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a great story and involves much more than the true crime aspect. It’s a great read for a journalist, for a true crime buff and for a mystery/thriller fan. You won’t be sorry.

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