I am a confirmed member of the church of true crime, and today is an important day among the initiated. It is a day of remembrance and reflection. Today is the 17th anniversary of Maura Murray’s disappearance.
The basic summary of the case is this: Maura Murray is a college student from Massachusetts who drove into the White Mountains of New Hampshire on February 9, 2004. She crashed her car on the side of the road, was approached by some locals and declined their offers to help. She was never seen again. That’s about the best I can do while leaving out all of the parts of this mystery that are in dispute.
The disappearance of Maura Murray is one of the most contentious unsolved mysteries of this century. The individual bits and pieces of it, the random signal bursts of information, have become a sort of shibboleth for the initiated. Speak of the “rag in the tailpipe” or “the whimpering call” and I know something about you. I see you, you see me, and we never ask out loud whether that’s what we’re really looking for in all of this. The ever-growing online community of people trying to figure out what happened to her is rife with bullying, harassment, deception, tribal warfare, and alternating bursts of genius and hysteria. The story of the people trying to find Maura Murray has become almost as interesting as the story of Maura Murray’s disappearance.
I am among the initiated, but hardly practicing. Sometimes I will realize I haven’t attended Mass in a while and throw on a podcast or two, reread the holy texts on Reddit and Twitter. My attention perks up whenever the scholars and monks, Renner, Freleng and the like, appear with the tiniest droplets of new information. Then of course, there are days like today, days to reflect and mark progress or failure. Mostly failure.
One of my favorite fictional crime stories is Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, partly because it’s a fictional crime novel written like a true crime novel. The narrator/protagonist is a classic true crime archetype—a regular civilian, a distinctly non-professional detective, someone who has grown up to reflect on the dark secrets of his hometown and returns to investigate the murder of his friend years earlier. It’s not a whodunit but whydunit. The killers have already been convicted; the mystery is in why they chose to kill in the first place.
So the narrator does what every true crime amateur detective does in a small town full of secrets—he interviews all the neighbors who are still alive, he interviews the police chief and makes judgments about the man’s fitness to handle crime, he interviews his own family members to glean from them the perspectives on dark matters that just never made good dinner conversation. He digs through moldy old records and court documents. And he puts together a catalogue of the familiar true crime signal bursts—the lengths of the knives that were in the killers’ possession, but were not actually used in the murder, the anonymous note warning the victim of the impending murder that was tragically not found until after the killing.
By adding these signal bursts, these threads that don’t quite lead anywhere, Marquez is creating a very believable crime scene. He knows how to do that because he was a crime reporter himself, and he knows that in true crime there are always bits and pieces that never quite fit. One imagines if this death foretold had occurred in our world, these signal bursts would become shibboleths of their own. Who wrote the note? What did it say? Marquez never tells us. Maybe he knows the truth, but he also knows that the only truth his true crime amateur can tell us is the truth he can find. As he investigates his friend’s murder, the narrator discovers some unseemly sides of the man, some things that tarnish his otherwise upstanding reputation. But the narrator writes it all down anyway, as if dropping every stray bit of evidence on his blog or in his podcast, because one never knows what will matter in the end.
Marquez sprinkled his death foretold with signal bursts because he knew that if you dig deep enough into any crime you dig up things that might mean nothing or might mean everything. The true crime initiated, and especially those of us in the Maura Murray denomination, know this all too well. Every signal burst still broadcasting from February 9, 2004 demands our attention. Every choice that Maura, the police, her friends, her family, and members of the online community have made begs scrutiny. And when we scrutinize those choices—Maura’s and ours—we find they don’t always make sense. The signal bursts don’t always make sense. And they don’t make sense because we’re talking about true crime, not fictional crime. Marquez tried to make his fictional crime more like true crime; I fear sometimes we are trying to make our true crime more like fiction.
In fiction, there are no signal bursts. In fiction, characters always have motives and make choices that make sense to us. And if those motives and choices don’t make sense to us in the moment, we feel confident that it will all come together in the end. We have faith that the signal bursts will be deciphered. We feel safe in the arms of the author.
But in true crime, we are faced with the chaos of human life. We are faced with the fact that when you drill down into the marrow of human life, when you scrutinize every moment of a single day in the life of a young woman, the entropy rises, the chaos becomes maddening, made no less maddening and no less chaotic by the fact that it was the last day that young woman happened to exist on our plane of understanding.
In reflecting on all the signal bursts and shibboleths upon which the Community of Maura has built itself, I keep thinking of one of my favorite short documentaries. It’s a film by Errol Morris in which he interviews the private investigator Tink Thompson about another contentious true crime case: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In the film, Thompson quotes John Updike, who reflected on the assassination in the New Yorker in 1967:
“We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.”
Maura Murray is not going to walk out of the woods and explain it all to us. Even if she did walk out of the woods, why should she explain anything? Each of our lives is a collection of chaotic choices, made by ourselves or by others. For the true crime initiated, whether you are a mere follower like me or a practitioner in the Community of Maura, to study her day on February 9, 2004 demands that we reckon with the inherent chaos of human life, that we wrestle with the signal bursts echoing through our days, and accept that those signals sometimes translate to nothing—perhaps more often than not.
And if you have any information regarding the disappearance of Maura Murray, you can contact the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit at email@example.com.