A disgraced New York Times reporter seeks out an accused murderer who’d been using the reporter’s identity while evading U.S. authorities in Mexico. A marriage of convenience perhaps, but not one made in heaven.
Indeed, by the time we've consumed this eminently readable if sour-tasting story, we have little sympathy for either the narcissistic Christian Longo, accused of murdering his wife and three children in December of 2001, or for Finkel, the journalist who sought out Longo with an eye toward writing the book at hand. Finkel learned of Longo within hours of being fired from the Times Magazine for fabricating parts of a story about workers in the Ivory Coast. Anyone can make a mistake, of course. But it doesn’t raise our level of empathy when Finkel confides that he’s been an inveterate liar most of his life (“The West Africa article wasn’t my first blatant deception. I’d lied many times: to bolster my credentials, to elicit sympathy, to make myself appear less ordinary”). During long correspondence and weekly phone calls before Longo’s trial, the pair forge a relationship based largely on mutual need. Longo needs someone to talk to; Finkel needs someone to write about. So we follow glumly along as Longo describes his descent from husband to thief to check forger to fugitive, portraying himself as a poor father struggling against one economic setback after the next. Longo insists he’s innocent of murder, even as his self-serving story becomes more transparent and nauseating. Finkel, meanwhile, already less skeptical than he should be, weaves in an account of his own firing, highlighting the pressures that led to his fabrications. Ultimately, both Longo’s and Finkel’s stories seem to share a common thread: rationalization of their misdeeds.
There’s a morbid fascination in following Longo’s descent, and Finkel (Alpine Circus, 1999) tells the tawdry tale in crisp journalist’s prose. But the result leaves us feeling used, and certainly no better for having met either figure.