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A murder mystery is revisited in the #MeToo era

Rebecca Makkai lives at a boarding school where no one has ever been murdered. She wants to be clear on this point because her new novel is set at one where someone has. I Have Some Questions for You is about murder and memory and reconciling your past self with your adult one.

A native of Lake Bluff, Makkai lives at a boarding school campus, where her husband is on the faculty and where she attended high school. She is the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, though it was her 2018 novel, The Great Believers, set among a community of gay men during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago, that put her on the map. It was an enormous critical and popular success and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

I spoke with Makkai in January and asked if a literary mystery was a deliberate departure from The Great Believers

Author Rebecca Makkai photographed at her lake cottage.
Credit: Brett Simison

“People took me very seriously with The Great Believers. My first two novels—people wouldn’t stop calling them romps. I was like, what the fuck, there’s a lot of death in my second novel,” she says. “That freed me up a little bit with this one to lean into some elements that I might previously have worried would mean I wasn’t taken seriously, like this true-crime obsession that we all seem to be in the middle of right now, and writing from a first-person, female point of view, which I haven’t done since my first novel.”

I will not call I Have Some Questions for You a romp, but I will tell you that I finished it in two sittings, at one in the morning. It is about Bodie Kane, a successful podcaster who returns to teach a podcast workshop at Granby, the New England boarding school she attended. One of her students decides to produce a podcast about the campus murder of a former student who so happened to be Bodie’s former roommate.

Thalia Keith was murdered in March 1995, after a performance of the musical Camelot. Her friends were drinking in the woods at the time, and her body was found in the athletic center pool, so suspicion quickly settled on an athletic trainer, Omar, who had been working late in the building. Thalia’s friends and teachers were all questioned after her death but graduated and left the area before Omar’s trial and eventual conviction.

When the novel opens, in January 2018, Thalia’s case has become a pet project of Internet sleuths. She was, inevitably, popular and beautiful, and the Black man convicted of her murder was the immediate and only suspect because her friends said he was creepy and the police believed them. That, combined with DNA evidence that may or may not be reliable, and a VHS recording of Camelot taken hours before her death, provide endless fodder for true-crime enthusiasts to obsess over in Reddit threads and YouTube channels.

Bodie tells herself that her student’s project will never be heard outside their workshop. But inevitably the podcast uncovers new evidence that, wouldn’t you know, blows the case wide open. 

The book is on one level a skillfully written murder mystery, replete with satisfying twists, red herrings, and eleventh-hour reveals. It is at the same time one layer removed from that genre, examining the true-crime phenomenon and whether it’s doing its subjects any good.

“What I was really interested in with this book was not just partaking in those tropes but also looking at the realities of the flip side, one of which is the way that the public fascination feels incredibly predatory to the people who are actually involved in the case,” Makkai says.

Although Bodie and Thalia had been roommates, they had not been friends. While Thalia had been a campus darling, Bodie was a goth who ran tech in the musicals and had few friends. Bodie was no one’s first choice to become Thalia’s avenging angel 23 years after her murder, least of all her family, friends, and ex-boyfriend, all of whom are drawn back into Thalia’s story, and what they remember about her and about that night.

On the other hand, Bodie remembers things. Things she thought little of at the time or trusted the adults around her to handle, which she now realizes might be the key to understanding Thalia’s last months, if not hours.

I Have Some Questions for You was written, and set, in the wake of the #MeToo movement. As Bodie says in the book, “We were, all of us, casting a sharp eye back on the men who’d hired us, mentored us, pulled us into coat closets.” She revisits her memories of Granby and Thalia with the maturity of the intervening years and the retroactive vocabulary the #MeToo movement gave to all of us. “I seethed at the realization that I had accepted this as normal, that I could only now calculate the full, ugly weight of it.”

Men she’d dismissed as harmless may have been hiding their predatory behavior in plain sight, and boys she’d dismissed as bullies may have been capable of extreme violence. And how much of the investigation into Thalia’s murder, and the narrative everyone quickly agreed on, was shaped by those men and those boys?

Bodie says, at one point, “I no longer had any sense of what was true.” And her former classmate wonders, “Maybe we shouldn’t have let, you know, a bunch of kids hand someone to the police.”

But relitigating the past, both literally and figuratively, is a murky business. The appeal of the true-crime genre is the supposed ability of a fresh perspective to mete out delayed justice—expose the evidence to the light of day, exonerate the wrongfully accused, and get the bad guy. When Bodie’s motivations for investigating Thalia’s murder are questioned, by others and by herself, that’s her indisputable reasoning—maybe we can know for sure what actually happened. Who actually did it?

In 1995, the case was driven by the collective narrative of Thalia’s friends, classmates, and teachers, each of whom brought their own set of biases and motivations. When the same group of people is asked to recall what happened 23 years later, they may be able to examine their memories more clearly, or they may simply filter them through a new era’s set of biases and motivations.

“That’s my job as a novelist,” Makkai says, “to complicate things, not simplify things. My job is to stir it up, mix it up, make you feel weird about it, complicate the notions you might have had.” Although an objective truth of what happened to Thalia exists, just as an objective version of every instance of violence or harassment exists, a web of competing narratives means that’s not always the story that gets told.

I Have Some Questions for You is not a straightforward murder mystery or a straightforward #MeToo story or a straightforward boarding school novel. It’s messier, more organic, and resistant to the tidy answers those genres aim for and is a triumph because of it. 

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Viking, hardcover, 448 pp., $28, penguinrandomhouse.com

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