Title: Six Stories
Author: Matt Wesolowski
Page count: 320 pages
Summary: Constructed as a series of podcasts, this crime thriller’s protagonist is an investigative journalist who reopens the case of 15 year old Tom Jeffries, who washed up dead on Scarclaw Fell back in 1997. Interviewing six suspects, witnesses and friends, Scott King harvests new truths about the victim and the circumstances surrounding his supposed death by misadventure, and it quickly becomes apparent that things aren’t as they may seem. Six Stories takes countless unexpected dark turns along its journey, and has a shocking twist that leaves the reader reeling.
Review: Ever heard of Serial? You probably have, especially if you’re reading this from America. The podcast phenomenon told the story of Adnan Syed, the ex-boyfriend of Hae Min Lee, whose strangled body was found back in 1999. Syed was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 30 years, which he served quietly for 15 years until rocketing into the spotlight in 2014 through Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, which interviewed new witnesses, explored evidence, pieced together timelines, and just generally tried to turn what was a somewhat grey case into a straight-forward black and white “yes, he did it” or “no, he didn’t”.
Six Stories definitely has echoes of Serial, and due to the fact it reads as a transcript of a podcast that could easily rival it, it’s likely Wesolowski was inspired by it. However, that’s not to say he latched onto an existing idea and just added his own twist; this book is a crime thriller unlike any other I’ve read before, and hardly comparable to Serial in any other way. It mixes the perfect cocktail of topics, from parenting to bullying, drugs, intoxication, mental health, stereotypes, folklore, old wives’ tales, and of course, murder, and serves it up on a silver platter for the reader.
Liked Serial? Read this!
Wesolowski has encapsulated the morbid fascination the world had with Serial, and expertly combined it with an engaging, page-turning storyline and terrifying elements of folklore that have you wondering if this is a straight-forward murder case after all.
The story is led by Scott King, an elusive investigative journalist who is known for both his viral crime podcasts, and his insistence on wearing a full-face mask to hide his identity when interviewing people. That said, King is a likeable narrator, and whilst we don’t really get to know him too much, he is the perfect driver from plot point to plot point, laying out each piece of information and allowing us to sculpt it into shape as we travel through the story.
Set in the present day, the podcasts talk to a variety of people, from Derek Bickers, the leader of the Scouts-like group in charge of Tom when he was found dead, to Haris Novak, a severely autistic man originally suspected by the police of having a hand in Tom’s death, as well as each member of Tom’s friendship group there with him on the night he died.
Interspersed with this is the story of Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, the son of the landowner of Scarclaw Fell, where Tom Jeffries was found dead. These entries tell us how Harry found Tom’s body, the real reason he was out in the woods that night, and why he chose to speak to Scott years later after the media furore had died down, concluding with a startling realisation that sends the plot spinning in the opposite direction to what the reader was expecting.
Things are not quite as they seem…
Originally, I was slightly confused by the jumps from Harry’s story to the podcast, but I soon realised the significance of each and kept the two running side by side as complementary narratives which eventually weave into one. I was also somewhat skeptical about a story being written in the form of podcasts (especially as the podcasts have never been recorded), but I actually found it a novel way of really endearing the reader to each character – you get to know their mannerisms, their voice, their behaviours when they’re uncomfortable, their story, and how it weaves in with that of Tom Jeffries. You begin to see the case through their eyes, and with Scott’s help, you start to form a blurry picture of what happened that fateful night. Much more original than your standard mystery, this book makes you a part of the story, immerses you in its twists and turns (oh, there are many!), and really makes you think about what could have happened.
That’s yet another reason the book is so clever; it weaves folklore into the plotline so seamlessly that you as the reader start to believe that maybe, just maybe, supernatural forces had something to do with the death of this teenage boy, in normal, 1990s northern England. It’s only when you close the book that you realise how bizarre it is to be suspecting urban legends and old wives’ tales in what’s set out as a realistic crime investigation!
How does a podcast work as a book?
Of course, with Six Stories being set out as a series of podcasts, the book is very dialogue-heavy, with the only real descriptions of the location and characters coming through Harry’s parts, and Scott’s introductions and interjections. That said, there’s no feeling of not knowing where these characters exist or who they are; Wesolowski still manages to create vibrant characters, and paint a vivid landscape of Scarclaw Fell which acts as a backdrop throughout the story, allowing you to visualise the plot as a private crime documentary in your mind.
Whilst crime novels and thrillers are fairly run-of-the-mill these days, Six Stories manages to take the genre, flip it, fold it, and present something entirely new. It’s one of those relatively unknown books that’s quietly brilliant and doesn’t quite know it yet. Normal novels in this area are the kids throwing paper aeroplanes and shouting for attention; Six Stories is the quiet kid at the front, neatly folding an origami crane as if it’s no big deal.
It’s one of those books that you stumble onto, not expecting too much, and suddenly, you’ve read the whole thing and recommended it to everyone you know, a movie’s in the works, and the author’s name is on the tip of everyone’s tongues.
It’s a truly different take on the genre that may start a little slow, but soon builds into a map of twists and turns, leading up to a major revelation that will leave you reeling. A great novel for crime and thriller fans who want something a little fresher, the Serial fan with a gap to fill after the podcast, or anyone with a curiosity around murder, psychology and sociology, this book is a quietly brilliant take on a much loved genre that’s sure to be cropping up on multitudes of bookshelves across the globe.