There’s no beat more likely to get you an audience and a paycheck. It’s trend-proof and recession-proof. Yes, true crime is freakishly popular right now, but it was never unpopular. Audiences have been showing up for gangster stories and murder stories and heist stories and scam stories steadily, for at least a hundred years, and probably a lot longer. It’s big business.
But it’s a business that can come with a personal cost for its practitioners. How can you dig into the darkest parts of the human psyche, the most notorious crimes, and not feel guilty?
Host: Jesse Brown
Credits: Tristan Capacchione (Audio Editor and Technical Producer), Bruce Thorson (Senior Producer), Annette Ejiofor (Managing Editor)
Additional music by Audio Network
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Tristian Capacchione: A note to listeners, today’s episode contains graphic descriptions of violence.
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Jesse Brown: Crime pays if you’re a journalist. There is no beat more likely to get you an audience and a paycheck. Crime is trend proof and recession proof. Yes, true crime is freakishly popular right now, but it was never unpopular. Audiences have been showing up for gangster stories and murder stories and heist stories and scam stories steadily for at least a hundred years. Probably a lot longer. It’s big business.
Which does not make crime reporting bad necessarily. Crime writing can, in fact be the very best kind of journalism – meticulously reported, deeply humanizing, beautifully written – rising sometimes to the stature of great literature like, say, with Truman Capote. But crime writing can also be the very worst kind of journalism – parasitic, manipulative, exploitative – turning other people’s misery and tragedy into a product owned by the journalist like, say, with Truman Capote.
Michael Lista writes about crime. He writes other things too, essays and poetry. But who reads poetry? People know Michael Lista because he writes about crime for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The Walrus and Toronto Life. He’s my guest today. And we’re going to talk about what it means to live off of stories about the worst events in other people’s lives. And our conversation is going to focus on one crime in particular, a crime that Michael writes about in his new book, The Human Scale. And that crime is the murder of Dr. Elana Frick. I asked Michael to briefly tell me the story of that crime. So before we begin. Here’s what happened.
(Reflective ethereal music plays)
Michael Lista: Maybe we’ll start at the end. On Friday, December 2nd, 2016, a suitcase was found by the side of the Humber River in Kleinburg, in Vaughan, and on the outside of it it bore a little tag with the name of a town in Croatia. It happened to be the ancestral town of the Frick family.
The suitcase belonged to Elana Frick, who was a beloved, well respected family doctor, and inside the bag was Elana’s body. She was wearing pajamas. Her hair had been cut off in ragged hacks. She was so unrecognizable, even though she had only been murdered less than 48 hours before. Her face was so unrecognizable that her mother, when asked to identify her, couldn’t and her father had to.
Mohammad Shamji was Elana’s husband. He was a neurosurgeon who specialized in spinal surgery, was really widely respected, grew up in a very well respected family, sort of Ottawa gentry. And to the world, it looked like they had this idyllic marriage. They sort of presented themselves on social media as this like, fun loving, jet setting couple with three beautiful children.
When the police and family and friends came to Mohammed to ask what had happened to her, he said, Well, Elana had left in the night with her suitcase and her boyfriend.
It turns out Elana had not left with her suitcase. She had left in her suitcase. It wasn’t a whodunit for very long. It turns out she was in the process of leaving Mohammed. She had retained a divorce lawyer and had told friends that she’d been severely abused by Mohammed, not just recently in the months leading up to her decision to divorce him, but essentially as soon as they met in 2003. Mohammed had been abusive, controlling and violent with her.
Two days after her body was found, police arrested then Dr. Mohammed Shamji and charged him with her first degree murder. It was her final attempt to leave him that brought him to kill her. He beat her to death and broke her neck in their home as their children sort of cowered and listened. Three years later, he pled guilty to the second degree murder of Elana Frick and is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 14 years.
(Reflective ethereal music plays)
Jesse Brown: Michael Lista joins me in our Toronto studio in a moment. Wait for it.
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(Patron sting plays)
Jesse Brown: I’ve got a paragraph you wrote here. I want you to read it for us.
Michael Lista: How the hell do people let us get away with it? We hover like vultures and call down like doves. We arrive as a kind of devilish apparition to the people who might be our sources, just as they’re vanquished from their heaven.
We’re not their friends, their advocates, their pastors or their shrinks. We’re a ledger, a pen and a notebook, absorbing our subject’s anguish without fear or favor. Our job is simply to listen, to watch, to write, to file on time and then to invoice.
Jesse Brown: Why the hell do they let us do it?
Michael Lista: (Laughing) I don’t know. On certain days I’m still romantic about journalism, and I think it has a public utility. I think like many crime reporters over the past few years, I’ve sort of questioned whether or not it’s really good for anything, especially as the genre sort of exploded in popularity. To me, it still matters to tell human stories humanely. I think there’s just a sort of ontological good to it.
Jesse Brown: But that’s not why they let us do it. That’s not why- that’s not why the victims of crime.
Michael Lista: No.
Jesse Brown: Talk to us.
Michael Lista: No.
Jesse Brown: It’s not for the greater good of humanity.
Michael Lista: No. You know, when you encounter a source for the first time, it sort of will go either 1 or 2 ways, Either very understandably, they’ll say, you know, I’m not ready to talk about this, but the worst thing that’s happened to me in my family.
But there’s another sort of group of sources who really do want to be heard, who want to tell their story because people aren’t listening or they feel like they’ve been misunderstood, misrepresented by another reporter. They just want someone to listen and to listen carefully.
Jesse Brown: Do you think that they let us do it? Because they do think that we are their advocates or because they do think that we are their therapist or that we’re going to give them a voice and tell their story. And they want- they want we are the mechanism through which they’re going to get their version of it out. And, if they think that, do we let them think that even though it’s not true?
Michael Lista: (Lets out a sigh) I’ve thought a lot about this. This is a hard question. You know what I try and do when I first speak to a source is kind of explain sort of who we are, you know? And I say, listen, everyone does this job differently. There are some reporters who do think that they are a kind of advocate, if not for the source themselves or the story the source is telling for some of the sort of sociopolitical concerns that the source or their story represent.
I let them know right up front that I’m not that kind of reporter, that I can’t- I want to manage their expectations and let them know that I don’t think that my work can really change anything. Even when it has sort of changed something, changed policy or changed law, I’m kind of surprised by it. You know, I want to manage their expectations and let them know that the only thing I can really do is to tell their story faithfully.
And I find sources really do respond to that because a lot of the people I’m dealing with are not professionals. They’re not seasoned PR pros, they’re not politicians. They’re regular people who have been sort of thrust into our profession’s spotlight because something really horrible happened to them. So sometimes they’re not even super sort of news media literate. And so you kind of I feel like I have a responsibility to sort of midwife them through the process, manage their expectations and promise only to tell the truth as they see it.
Jesse Brown: I won’t put this on you. I guess I’ll just speak for myself. I try to also be very clear what the terms are, who I am and who I’m not. What they should expect and you know what you find. As with any source, not just crime stories, is that people really do need that explanation.
And people really don’t understand how we do our jobs or the differences between being on the record or on background or what you use and what you don’t, and the fact that you are going to be getting the other side of the story and you are going to be telling other people that you were told this. What do you have to say about this?
And then what often happens is I enter into a relationship in which they do come to talk to me like I am a friend or a therapist or an advocate. And then the story comes out and sometimes it’s not what they expected and they feel terribly betrayed.
Michael Lista: I’ve had the same thing happen to me more than once. I think that the people who do want to tell their stories, they do, often enthusiastically. People love to be heard. Almost no one likes to be written about, even if it’s done sort of overweeningly flatteringly. They still find something to be sort of upset about.
Jesse Brown: It’s so disempowering for somebody else to tell your story.
Michael Lista: Absolutely.
Jesse Brown: Even if they’re glorifying you.
Michael Lista: (Laughing) Exactly, Exactly. Even if it’s done well, with respect and even often, if it’s flattering, there will be something like. Well, no, no, no, you got this wrong. I told you it was this way and not that way.
When you were mentioning sort of the you know, despite the disclaimer, you find yourself often in in a relationship where the source can treat you like a friend or like you’re their advocate.
Jesse Brown: And therapist.
Michael Lista: And therapist.
Jesse Brown: Late night calls working through emotional issues, especially people who are victims.
Michael Lista: I find the same thing and I allow myself to be available when I’m doing one of these stories pretty much day or night. You know.
Jesse Brown: Night is when sometimes you get the best quotes.
Michael Lista: That’s it. I know when you see that 11:30 phone call come through, you’re like, This could be very good.
Jesse Brown: Back to your reference to vultures.
Michael Lista: (Chuckling) Yeah, I know, I know. But at the same time, I have three things to which I’m beholden the source. Something like the truth. But then also my readers, right? Like, I kind of think that as a journalist, your audience is in many ways your first obligation because you’re just sort of like a pane of glass between the truth that’s out there, the people who are trying to tell it and your audience.
You know, I think one of the ways in which we get the really good stuff is by creating that intimacy, which is inevitable. Right? Is it vampiric? Is it disingenuous? No, because I think that in many ways, even though you’re not their friend or their therapist or their advocate or their priest or their lawyer or whatever, you know, two people talking about one of the most intimate, horrible things that can happen to someone. I think it has to involve something like care on the journalist’s behalf.
We like to think of ourselves as objective, dispassionate. But I think that when any journalism, especially crime journalism, is done well, it’s because the journalist does end up caring. That doesn’t mean that you are out to fix the source, to solve their problems, to clean their conscience, any of that stuff.
But you do have to care about the fact that a very human thing has happened to someone which is steeped in the most profound emotions people can feel. And if you’re not feeling it as a journalist, I don’t think you’re doing your job right.
Jesse Brown: Yeah, no, I do- I think you have to care. I mean, you have to care for your reader to care-.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: But caring, you know, when you say you’re beholden, it’s an interesting phrase. And I think, you know, especially when you’re dealing with victims like you do owe them something and you owe them something beyond just that. You’re telling their story. You’re telling the truth. I think that you owe them a certain duty of care and yet to be beholden to them and the truth is sort of like, I’m not sure that those are put on an equal level because, I mean, one thing that I’ve learned is that every story that anybody casually tells you does not survive fact checking.
Michael Lista: (Laughs) Any story that people have been telling within a family for generations is riddled with four things have been turned into one thing or something’s been exaggerated. And so without calling anyone a liar, you can hear from a victim and they are telling you the most intimate things and you care about them. And then you go and you verify. And at best, there’ll be some modification and sometimes you’ll catch them in something. And if you are given a choice between being beholden to the truth and being beholden to the source, got to.
Michael Lista: Got to side with the truth.
Jesse Brown: Yeah, I think to make this specific, we’re going to focus on one story that you’ve reported, and that is the murder of Dr. Elana Frick by her husband, Mohammed Shamji. Let me ask you to read something that you wrote about your reporting of that story.
Michael Lista: After her slaying her friends, family and colleagues bemoaned on social media that press coverage was framing the story as, quote, brilliant neurosurgeon murders wife by sliding into the narrative grooves of criminal lays down for the writer. The newspaper reporters made those grieving Frick feel like she was a secondary character in the story of her own demise. So I started reaching out to them with the promise that I’d do a different kind of story, one that centers the victim, makes her the main character, and foregrounds her life mind and decisions.
Jesse Brown: I have been dubious about this notion of victim centered crime reporting. At its worst, it has felt to me like a very specific and specifically biased form of biography, where we’re not going to glorify the killer or give them the attention they deserve, even if it’s infamy. No, we’re going to valourize the victim.
And it’s a biography that’s written differently than any other biography. And a writer writing a biography is looking for conflict, is looking for a complicated character. But at its worst, this kind of writing, victim centred crime reporting is lionizing. It’s a hagiography where- and the only reason you’re writing this glowing biography is because it ends with them getting murdered. And they’ve sort of earned this very positive write up of their life because they happen to get murdered.
It’s always seemed like a strange exercise that’s only being done in opposition to what people actually want to read. I don’t think you did that with this story. I think you succeeded in telling the story –Not really just the story of the deceased of the victim of Dr. Elana Frick — but really, it’s the story of this relationship.
Michael Lista: I appreciate that. And, you know, I- as I write in the postscript to the story where I kind of talk about the process of reporting and the narrative gambit of it all. You know, I too, as I started reporting the piece and then writing it, I too, was a little bit dubious of it.
You know, I’m critical in the book about examples of other crime writers who have done it. And in fact, even of the judge in the Alek Minassian case said a similar thing in her judgment. She refused to name Minassian. Instead, she called him John Doe because she said it was his own haywire imaginings of fame that sort of led him to do what he did.
Jesse Brown: Alek Minassian, of course, the self-described incel who in 2018 drove a van onto the sidewalk in Toronto, killing 11 people.
Michael Lista: And I disagree with the premise in many ways because, you know, having a crime story without a villain that, as you say, sort of makes a hagiography of the deceased is kind of like trying to remake meteorology without talking about the storms.
Jesse Brown: Why are we pretending that this is anything other than it is?
Michael Lista: Of course, of course. What I wanted instead and I appreciate you saying that you didn’t think I screwed it up too badly was that I wanted to understand their marriage. Shamji wouldn’t talk to us, but I wanted to understand Elaine as mind the decisions that she made and that were visited upon her from her perspective.
And it’s not because by being murdered, one turns into a saint or anything like that. It’s more that, you know, I found this is in many ways the story of a marriage. And what I wanted to know was what were the dynamics that were happening inside the marriage and how Elana was allowed to be sort of isolated, how she was sort of removed from the other apparatuses of support that her friends and her family.
The story she told about her marriage online, in public and also to those closest to her in order to sort of see how a horrifyingly abusive relationship like this, how it sort of operates. So it was more a way of trying to take a look under the hood of this of a relationship than it was sort of making a saint out of her.
Jesse Brown: You wrote that we write villains as main characters for a reason. They’re the ones who make the consequential decisions. It’s actually like it’s really hard to do what you did because it’s easy to write about crime when you are writing about the decisions. Like in any story, action is great and somebody who takes action and then if they’re a criminal, it’s just interesting. The criminal woke up. What did he do next? Know how did and you know how it ends. It ends with them doing a terrible crime.
So you’re invested and interested immediately. So how do you do the other thing? How do you how do you write about the victim? And we’ve kind of talked about the wrong way to or kind of like, I think a doll and maybe dishonest way to do it the way you did it. It’s more than the story of the relationship. And this is why I’m really focusing on it as a difficult thing to pull off, because it’s really the story of how this was able to happen. And that’s so close to it’s the story of her inaction in a lot of ways and the danger of writing a story about why she didn’t leave, which she ultimately was doing, could very easily become a story of victim blaming.
Michael Lista: That’s what I was most scared of.
Jesse Brown: Yeah.
Michael Lista: By trying to do- by trying this sort of narrative gambit where it’s Elana who is the one who is making- we’re seeing her decision making process over and over. You know, it actually kept me up at night after the story came out, I was really scared that by trying to sort of center her as the main character.
You know, I was worried, number one, that it would be misunderstood as the sort of hagiography you’re talking about. But then I was worried about the opposite. I was worried that by making her the main character, I was kind of implicating her as the engine of her own demise, right?
Jesse Brown: Right.
Michael Lista: Which is the last thing anyone reporting on domestic violence, which in and of itself is very difficult to do. I- I was terrified of that.
Jesse Brown: On the cover of Toronto Life Photo of the Smiling Couple, it’s hard not to read a story like that as here’s the story of how she got murdered. You know, chapter one she was born.
Michael Lista: Right (laughing).
Jesse Brown: Which does I guess suggest some level of like agency or here’s her role in this happening. But I think what you emerge with is something that did not overplay things in that direction. But there are little parts where the reader gets a hint of how she failed in other ways. And, you know, you remind us that prior to him killing her, he was charged. There were three criminal charges against him in 2005, one of assault against Elana and two of uttering threats of bodily harm.
But after those criminal charges, the couple reconciled. And, you know, Dr. Shamji — the celebrated neurosurgeon — he used his stature and his connections to get this all tossed as sort of like a little domestic squabble. You know, like why should this unfortunate event impede his ability to travel to the United States and to work there.And the charges were withdrawn and he entered into a peace bond and he agreed to 12 months probation. It was a bit of a slap on the wrist. That is a critical juncture where something different might have happened.
Michael Lista: Absolutely. And it’s hard not to be a little bit upset with the crown in that moment. And my interest in crime reporting has always been not just in the sort of anecdotal fact of the crime itself — that, you know, this person killed that person — isn’t that strange and bad.
It’s really how these imperfect people sort of navigate and are navigated by the sort of larger systems in which they work. You know, socioeconomic jurisprudential. So when we see the crown being so close to avoiding sort of intervening before things go horribly wrong and it’s too late. It takes the context of Elana’s thinking about her own relationship in order to understand how the crown failed her. And if we don’t understand the way Elana thinks, we don’t understand how the criminal justice system fails a woman in that moment.
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Jesse Brown: Returning to your process and the relationships that you had to enter into to tell the story. I’m going to ask you to read again something that you wrote.
Michael Lista: Joe and Anna and I would spend hours across weeks talking about Alana at the kitchen table. When we spoke about her early life — the miracle that she had been born at all, her precocious, prodigious girlhood, her resolve and her accomplishments — they would smile and laugh as if the vital part of her were sequestered somewhere beyond what Shamji had done to her.
They gave me the only copy of the book of poems she’d written as a girl in high school showed me her painting of those lovers dancing, the woman’s back to us, the man’s face left undrawn. When they cried, I couldn’t help but reach out and grab their hands. And on one of my last visits to their house, I walked into the kitchen where the boy was deep in play, and Anna, in a kind but commanding tone, said to him, come and say hello to Uncle Michael. Uncle Michael, I can’t unhear those words, can’t unring that bell.
And this is when I started having real trouble sleeping, once I had everything I needed, not only did I worry I’d gotten too close to the story emotionally, but now I worried as I sat down to write it how to protect it and everyone who trusted me from legal chicanery.
But I knew something that I hadn’t dared report that their eldest daughter had been the only witness to their mother’s murder and Shamji’s conviction would turn on her testimony. I’d console myself that I’d immunized the Crown’s case against my reporting because I hadn’t spoken to that daughter or published the fact that I knew what she knew. But the fact that she was in Windsor prepared to send her father to prison for life deepened my insomnia.
Jesse Brown: Holy shit. Let’s take that apart a little bit here. You found out that this poor little girl- how old was she at the time that this happened?
Michael Lista: I think she was 13 or 14.
Jesse Brown: Uh., when she was 13 or 14, she. She listened to her father murder her mother. Yeah. And you got close enough with her grandparents and even siblings that one of her siblings called you Uncle Michael, but you intentionally did not interview her-
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: -because if you did, that could compromise the case against the murderer.
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: Typically, we are not supposed to involve ourselves with legal outcomes. We are supposed to seek out. Witnesses who have first hand knowledge. If you’re reporting on a murder, they’re first hand witness of the murder. That’s somebody that the journalist wants to talk to. You’re going to get the best information possible from the witness to even concern yourself with the legal process by the book would be to concern yourself with the outcome, which we’re not supposed to get involved with or care about.
On the other hand, we’re human beings. And the idea that in getting this great stuff for your story and maybe you’re in a better position than me, I think I would stumble through it, but how would you fuck up the court case by talking to this girl?
Michael Lista: Well, let’s say this, let’s say I interviewed her in the ideal way you want to interview someone like that, like a firsthand witness on the record. Let’s say I did write and I write. Their eldest daughter heard her mother screaming at around 2:00 in the morning and then a thud. And then she walked through the door and saw her father on the other side of the bed and she could tell her mother was there, blah, blah, blah. Describe the scene then.
What a defense attorney could do is say, walk up to her on the witness stand brandishing a copy of Toronto Life and say, Here in Toronto, life. Sorry, what time was it when you. Oh, sorry, was it 2:04, 2:06? Sorry, where was your father standing? You testified twenty minutes ago that he was standing over here, but in the article right here, you say he was standing over there. So which, you know, you’re getting your facts wrong. How can we believe anything you’re saying? Right.
I mean, it’s a classic sort of defense attorney tactic. I couldn’t in good conscience knowing that the daughter would have to be and was prepared to take the stand to send her father to prison. I just I- call me a bad journalist, but I could not put that family, that young woman, in that situation for for the truth for a little bit more accurate description of what happened that night,
I- I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. And and I don’t know if, if our readers’ interest is served. I don’t know if the gambit of it is worth it, if our readers know a little bit more before the case about the actual murder, a few more details. If it’s worth the potential human suffering that getting those details would precipitate.
Jesse Brown: Yeah.
Michael Lista: I mean, what do you know- like, what do you think, Jesse? Like do you think is-
Jesse Brown: Is it a- I mean, it’s not a very difficult decision, right? I don’t mean to make it sound like it is. If there was a question as to his guilt at this point, he had pled guilty.
He hadn’t, when by the time we came out with the story. So Elana was murdered on December 1st, 2016, and our story came out four months later. But he didn’t plead guilty until years later.
Jesse Brown: Right, right. I guess what I mean is like this was not the kind of crime reporting where you were trying to figure out who did it.
Michael Lista: Right, exactly.
Jesse Brown: You know, if that was the exercise like we do this kind of like rough first draft of what official processes do later or what hopefully the police are doing, you know. This was not that kind of a crime story. No, I think you would have had a much more difficult decision if you’re like, well, I don’t want to speak to the witness to this murder, because if, in fact, it was her father and ultimately there’s this court process, then et cetera, et cetera.
Michael Lista: Yeah,
Jesse Brown: I think that would have complicated it. And you’d have a real like, one for the journalism ethics class.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: I think in this case, you know, you’d have to be a real son of a bitch to to pursue that interview.
Michael Lista: I agree.
Jesse Brown: It is interesting as a good example of like when we have to just check ourselves and understand that there are more important things than the public’s right to know, you know, in this case; the victims right to justice was more important. And, you know, and you’re taking ownership of something, which is a big part of this too, which is like, we have to live with ourselves.
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: You write about this too, in a way that was really moving for me. I have in my photo roll as my kids grow up, weird little snippets interrupting the story of their childhoods. I don’t cover stuff as intense as you, but I’ve covered some pretty serious crime from time to time and then just a bunch of weird media stuff and interspersed with, I guess, any reporter’s memories of their own lives and their own children are screenshots and photos of people. We cover little bits of evidence, little things to remind ourselves. And if you don’t have really good practices around putting those in different folders and getting them away, well, here’s how you put it-
Michael Lista: As I investigated the crime, her friends and family sent the pictures to me so I could better understand who she’d been. And an algorithm somewhere clocked their digital stamp and sent them back through time, filing them chronologically into the carousel of my own life, retroactively braiding her memories with mine between my day at the beach and my night at the bar. She and Shamji still appear in those montages set to music that the photo app puts together unbidden, shuffled into my hand like an errant pair of cards from a foreign deck. As if some computer program has an insight into what I can barely dare admit that in some indelible way, our lives are forever stitched together.
Jesse Brown: So just to be clear about what happened, you had on your phone a bunch of pictures of both the murderer and his victim, kind of like family pictures of them smiling, posing together, things that you had collected or had been sent to you and that got mixed in with your own photos. And then when, like when the photo app does its little memories together, we’ve created you a digital montage and they play a little canned music. You saw them mixed in with the people who you’re closest to in your life.
Michael Lista: I think it was called. I think the montage was called like “Fun With Friends”.
Jesse Brown: No, really.
Michael Lista: It was something like that.
Jesse Brown: Oh, my God.
Michael Lista: And it was, you know, me and my buddies, you know, my sister and my- my little nieces. And then there was a picture of Elana out with her friends eating pizza close to a year before she was murdered. I know the pizza joint, Right.
Jesse Brown: Uh huh.
Michael Lista: There are pictures of me in that pizza joint, like, you know, at another time. And she’s smiling. And when I saw it, I was just like, oh, good God. Like, no. And then, you know, and then it was another picture of, you know, of us like swimming in a lake up north or something like that. And I just again, it was shocking.
Jesse Brown: That’s fucking heavy. Like, because it’s true, it’s a mistake for the algorithm to, you know, these little, you know, “Memories Together”. And then there’s some canned music and it can’t help but get to you because it’s using pictures of your own life. But then for not just the victim, but the murderer, smiling pictures of these people. So that’s a mistake. Those aren’t your loved ones. That’s not your life. No, but like, isn’t it like, who are you more intimate with? You know, probably not a long list of people.
Michael Lista: No, no. I mean, sometimes I worry I’m too sentimental about this stuff. That- that it’s- that it’s almost inappropriate to. To- to feel like I care as much about the people I talk to and write about as much as I do, but call me a softie. You know, this story was one of the fastest ones I ever did. It was about three months. And we were talking to I think the number is somewhere between 40 and 50 sources who were like, you know, the closest people to Elana and Mo.
And, you know, each one I would talk to for at least on average, like I would say 5 or 6 hours, right? Some of them like Joe and Anna. I mean, we talked for dozens upon dozens of hours. Do you know what I mean? To the point where they thought it was appropriate for Elana and Mo’s son to call me Uncle Michael. You know what I mean?
I would be- if I didn’t sort of let myself be affected by the people I write about. I would never have gotten to the point where I could get the story in the way I did. I think because, you know, by making myself available to them, you know, you have to be you have to be like data from Star Trek, you know what I mean? Or, you know, a Vulcan not to care, you know, And it does affect me. I mean, you chop her into these people’s lives, you spend huge amounts of time with them. You obsess over getting the story right and then you kind of vanish. But all of these people in one way or another have kind of wounded me. Do you know what I mean? Because, you know, I think you have to care in order to do this job right.
Jesse Brown: And what about the murderer?
Michael Lista: So there was a review in the of the book in the Toronto Star, and the reviewer said, I’m too soft on the criminals. And in some ways, I mean, in some ways I don’t think that’s true. And in others, I kind of do. I mean, I do, you know, people who do really horrible things, it’s so easy as a reader to be filled with like a holy hatred for them. Do you know what I mean?
Jesse Brown: It’s also boring writing.
Michael Lista: I agree.
Jesse Brown: It’s bad writing. Like-
Michael Lista: I agree.
Jesse Brown: It’s bad writing. If they’re just bad, bad, bad. And it’s also bad writing. If if it’s, you know, what the judge did in their ruling or, you know, I had a guest who’s a gun advocate who was, you know, how do we what do we do about these mass murderers? And he said, well, there should be a law that you can’t publish their names.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: You know, So I was like, that’s bad journalism. (Michael laughs) Like, But, you know, the idea is like, we’re not going to give them what they want. They’re just evil. Fuck them. They who shall not be named. You wrote, I remain unconvinced that I or my readers are best served by a narrative tactic that ultimately fails to inhabit the inner convenient humanity of criminals.
You write criminals as humans in the way that people have been writing about crime for a long time. I mean, if there’s any contradiction here, any place I want to push back on you, it’s it’s a little bit too pat, the explanation you gave earlier, we write villains as main characters for a reason. They’re the ones who make the most consequential decisions. They’re the ones who make the consequential decisions. That’s true enough. But we also write them because they’re interesting. Yeah.
Michael Lista: Of course.
Jesse Brown: The villains are the villains in any story are almost always more interesting.
Michael Lista: Of course, because, first of all, they’re rare, right? I mean, like someone who does something truly horrible is by definition, sort of exceptional, right? I mean, not in a good way, but if you’re looking at the sort of data set of humanity, there’s this really small subset who are doing this sort of exotic thing. Right?
Jesse Brown: Outliers are interesting, right? Surprises are interesting and extremes are. I mean, it’s I mean, and that’s true whether. It’s just the news. The news is not what happened today. It’s the weird shit that happened today that wasn’t supposed to happen today. And then I think it’s also true of whatever literary nonfiction like what are you going to spend the time like? And we’re talking months and sometimes years delving into a crime.
You know, it was interesting, like I was listening to James Gandolfini talk about The Sopranos. And it’s so interesting in this age where we’re so interested in true crime, that’s not true crime, but it’s, you know, close enough. It’s based on the truth, like the best true crime or crime fiction, I suppose, isn’t really about crime. And he was talking about The Sopranos, like, look, look, this isn’t this show is about family and it’s about generational dynamics. It’s about society. It’s about friendship. I’m like, yeah, it’s and then at the end.
Michael Lista: He spoken like a gangster. (Both laugh)
Jesse Brown: And he’s totally right. He’s totally right. And I suppose like, there’s no shortage of literature out there that’s like, you know, three generations of a normal family. And there’s tons of interesting stuff you can get into, but it helps if somebody killed somebody (Michael laughs) And that’s what he’s like- it’s all that stuff.
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: Plus you got the Mafia stuff, which makes it a TV show.
Michael Lista: Right, yeah.
Jesse Brown: Like you offer a complicated and interesting human portrait of this doctor who is somebody who you feel like, you know, at the end of writing it, and that’s sort of what makes it so, wow, this could happen to. But Toronto Life doesn’t write cover stories of like here’s an interesting Torontonian, you know, let’s do like a 5 000 word obit of somebody who died in their sleep, right?
Michael Lista: Yup, no, absolutely. Absolutely. The question I always come back to is, especially in this sort of true crime boom moment that we’re sort of living through, is is it bad to be interested in criminals because they’re criminals, right? Like, is there something that’s kind of there is like a sort of finger wagging sort of moralism from some crowds, you know, the type. Right.
Jesse Brown: And from you. And we all do it like we kind of enjoy doing it. We’re like, we’re ghouls, right? We’re a bunch of vultures, you know, like you said that you’re proud of the story in the shameful way-.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: That writers of true crime can be proud of a work that is based on somebody else’s misery. Right. But we’re not really shamed.
Michael Lista: Well, no, I mean, but it does make you a bit of an asshole if you’re walking around being like, god damn, that’s my best work. You know what I mean? Like, you know what I mean?
Jesse Brown: It’s also honest.
Michael Lista: Maybe, yeah, maybe (laughing). You know, true crime is, I think, interesting as a genre. Not just to consume, but to think about because it is this combination of all these things at once. It is, as I say, like, you know, when I was doing- doing my first murder, you know, I had this moment when I realized it was wickedly fun, you know what I mean? It was delightful fun. I mean, it was great. You know what I mean?
When you write a Toronto Life crime cover story, you know, it’s in every single dentist’s office in Toronto, right? Your mom’s friend, your grandma’s knitting partner. Like, they’re all reading it. Right. Everyone is consuming it. And I don’t think there’s anything immoral about the genre if you do it kind of morally. Do you know what I mean?
Which isn’t like which isn’t in some. I’m not one of those like, sort of hair-shirt wearing true crime writers where, you know, I’m sort of wallowing in abjection or anything like that. But it does contain these competing impulses where it’s like I am taking someone’s pain, digesting it and turning it into something that’s somewhere between elucidating and titillating. Right. And I think it’s okay to have those competing feelings. You don’t have to have one or the other, right?
Jesse Brown: Yeah. You know, I’ve known crime reporters who take it head on and sort of wear it in a like, yeah, I’m a piece of shit. And I think there’s a certain attempt at honesty in that.
Michael Lista: Right?
Jesse Brown: Know, I guess the worst kind is the kind that, like, thinks that they are doing God’s work.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: Maybe the only real ethical way to do it is to wrestle with it and to be uncertain about it.
Michael Lista: Yeah I think so too. I think so too. Because, you know, I think your attitude about the genre comes out in every single sentence you write. Do you know what I mean? And if you are kind of like the swashbuckling, hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking piece of shit, like it kind of comes across right? If you are the hair-shirt wearing like sort of abject self-hating crime writer that’s going to come across to in some ways I think it does the sources-
Jesse Brown: And if you delude yourself, if you kid yourself into thinking that you’re just representing victims.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: And telling, you know, if you kid yourself.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: That it’s purely a noble act.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: That’s that’s a lie, too, that there’s no level of like, you can’t get around that there is exploitation.
Michael Lista: Of course.
Jesse Brown: You’re turning it into content, of course.
Michael Lista: And you’re getting paid for it. And you’re going to get a lot of, you know, eardrums and eyeballs paying attention to it. Right? So for me, like being able to strike that balance between self-congratulation and self-hatred is- I think that’s that’s the one that’s not just the sort of best moral position. I think it’s actually good for your work as a journalist. Right?
Jesse Brown: Why do people need to know about crime like. There is prurience and titillation. There is a porn aspect to it. Is it just that and is that like to kind of get back to what we were saying earlier, you can basically sell a story that’s a piece of literature. If the character dies at the end in a grisly crime.
And I don’t judge. There’s no shortage of you got to put asses in seats. And many of the issues based journalism that we strive for and submit to awards need something titillating or interesting just to get somebody there. So you could kind of look at the crime is like, well, like the James Gandolfini thing of like the Mafia is what got the audience. But it’s really not about that.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: But there’s another way of looking at it, which is that I don’t know. Do people need to know about crime? Because crime tells us something. There’s I don’t know if it was I don’t want to be quoting Robert Kennedy, but I might be. There’s also it was also said by Val McDermott, who’s a Scottish crime writer. They both said that a society gets the criminals it deserves.
Michael Lista: Yeah, absolutely. Like I do think there is a way in which certain kinds of crime are a sort of emanation of the society in which it happens, right? That’s true. For example, like when it comes to something like gun violence in America, right? I mean, by understanding-
Jesse Brown: Jeffrey Epstein.
Michael Lista: Jeffrey Epstein. Right. I mean, the thing that I think is if there is an issue in love story, you know, I think the most important one is that the reason why those initial headlines were written the way they were brilliant neurosurgeon murders wife, is because there is a class element to this story and that’s important for us to understand about domestic violence, right?
Like domestic violence is completely blind to class. And yet we I think undergirding the interest in the story is this sense that, oh, that there’s a certain kind of crime that only affects a certain class, right? Like how could a brilliant neurosurgeon beat up his wife for, you know, 15 years and then kill her, right? It seems he’s too respectable, they’re too rich, right?
And I think that belies a silly and classist understanding of a societal ill that cuts through class, creed and you know can affect everybody. That’s what makes it surprising, right? That’s the way in which it’s a reflection of our sort of the preconceptions of our society, right?
Jesse Brown: Are surprised that this happened between these two white collar professionals and not in a trailer park-
Michael Lista: Exactly.
Jesse Brown: -says something about us.
Michael Lista: Yup.
Jesse Brown: The way in which it happened between them. Well. There’s another story that you didn’t have access to write about who this guy was and how he was brought up and how he was capable of that.
Michael Lista: You know, we touch on it a little bit and, you know, we sort of we talk about his austere, prestigious upbringing that that he had, which I think led to a sense of kind of entitlement and that fed into the way that he behaved in his marriage.
Jesse Brown: It’s inferred around the edges, you know, the biography that you’re able to offer about him, you can fill in the blanks of like overachiever, striver, born kind of elite way he treated her, you know, you can you can kind of infer and I don’t think that’s anything manipulative on your part because you didn’t have access to him and you lay out the facts as they are and, you know, they tell a story. It’s interesting, though, like I always wonder, like, yeah, that suggests to me something, and I kind of just know that if you actually were able to go, it would be different.
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: It might be inclusive of that.
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: It’s almost never just the thing. You think it’s going to be the.
Michael Lista: Other reason I think that crime reporting is interesting to us and also in its own way — I don’t want to- maybe important is the wrong word — but the reason why it’s still relevant, right? Is because there is a way in which even when you do get really good access to a criminal or the family of a criminal or the people around them, there is a way in which however much reporting you can do about why the person became the way they are, very often you’ll find there’s something very mysterious and inexplicable and almost unrepeatable about it, right?
Jesse Brown: Yeah.
Michael Lista: Like it doesn’t like, you know, you can you can you can get as much of that stuff as you want. And it’s still kind of feels like it doesn’t add up. There’s something that’s mysterious and missing that I think is the thing that fascinates not just me, but I think consumers of true crime because it’s like, why did this one break bad? Right? Why what? What is that odd thing?
You know, as a kid, I was kind of a hypochondriac and I was always worried about my appendix bursting, right? And my interest in it was always something sort of like that. Like I was like, there is this old desiccated organ inside all of us that for some reason in some people just erupts. Do you know what I mean? And it almost feels like this is where I get the sympathy of criminals from, because it’s almost like there is a way in which — of course, of course they’re culpable for it, of course they should know, they should have to pay for their crimes — but there is a way in which they kind of look like the evil is riding them and not the other way around. Do you know what I mean?
Jesse Brown: I think I do. That’s sort of one lens through which you can look at. It is like what’s broken in people that allows them to go to these extremes. I guess there’s a nihilistic way of looking at like, bullshit. Nothing has to be broken. Anybody will do this stuff under the right circumstances.
Michael Lista: Right?
Jesse Brown: I guess what draws me to to one story and not the other and I cover different stories than you, but I take notice when there’s a big crime, and you know, it’s going to be a big story, there’s a lot of interest and there is a process, whether I’m reporting or assigning people to things where, you know, it’s like story selection. You know, does this mean anything or is it just another murder?
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: And I’m not going to suggest that my instincts are terribly good. Some of it’s a matter of personal taste. But when Barry and Honey Sherman got murdered, I was like, pass.
Michael Lista: I felt the same way. There was a second in which I was kind of like, Do I have to do this one? And I’m kind of like, I know this sounds, you know, every life is valuable. But to me as a reporter, it was and this is this is the crime stories that I don’t want to do. I don’t want them to feel merely anecdotal. Do you know what I mean?
Like, there has to be something, it has to be a way in which the crime tells us something about ourselves, the systems in which we live, our preconceptions about why crime happens and to whom. Do you know what I mean? Like it has to it has to have some sort of surplus value than its mere news-y-ness.
Jesse Brown: I do know what you mean, and it’s a really hard one to talk about because we don’t know who killed them. But like you kind of run this ghoulish math, this algorithm in your head and you’re like, look, I don’t know. It was a business thing or it was a family thing, like kind of like run the different outcomes, not knowing and like, are any of those things about anything.
Michael Lista: Right.
Jesse Brown: And I kind of was like, I don’t see a there there. Yeah. You know, I know good chance that we’ll never know. And even if you do find out, good chance it’s like, yeah, like somebody hired killers because of a business thing or he had a like- it’s something like that and I’m just like, you know. And knowing the investment that’s required, you make these judgment calls.
Michael Lista: Yup. Part of the reason I didn’t want to do the Sherman story, I had a friend of mine who’s also a crime writer at one of the big dailies, and she was put on it briefly, and then she said, you know, essentially she was like, you know what? I don’t want to do this story, there’s no way we’re going to figure this out.
This was like months after months after like, you know, the murder happened. She was like, we’re never going to know. And it’s not it’s kind of not worth the not knowing. I have done a story where we don’t know who killed the person, but the reason I did it was because it was the story about the murder of Beverly Smith. And the reason I did it was because the police, in their attempt to figure out who did it, they deployed this Mr. Big investigation.
Jesse Brown: Oh, yeah, right.
Michael Lista: Which is like it’s fascinating.
Jesse Brown: Uniquely Canadian unsolved can be okay. Yeah. I mean, the Indigenous deaths and Thunder Bay were, of course, remain unsolved. But my God, the things that are revealed- yeah, but there’s got to be something. There’s got to be something to chew on.
Michael Lista: Again, I think it has to tell us something about who we as a people are, who we as a society are. And if it doesn’t, if it doesn’t, you know, I’ll let somebody else do it.
Jesse Brown: Has anything changed in how you approach the stuff the next time you are like talking to a survivor of a murder victim? Is it different than the first time?
Michael Lista: You know, I think everyone’s bedside manner can always be a little bit better. I think I’m more confident now, having sort of gone through it. A bunch of murderers are. It’s weird. Again, maybe I’m sort of like a softie, but I find that, like, you know, murderers can creep up on you emotionally. Do you know what I mean?
Especially at the beginning, it takes a lot of, you know, sort of emotional fortitude to not just do it right, but to kind of be able to live with it. Now, I kind of feel like it’s not like I’m grizzled or anything, but I think I’m more I’m better equipped to be able to sort of dive into the dark with with people who are grieving and and do it without being without being sort of swallowed up by it in the way I had in the past. And I think that makes us better reporters because you want to care, but you don’t want to get you don’t want to get overwhelmed because then you’re not doing your sources good. You’re not doing your readers service.
Jesse Brown: Or any favors for your own health and well-being.
Michael Lista: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: As much as we can talk about how sources lose sight of the line between a journalist and a friend or a shrink or an advocate. Yeah, we can get lost, too.
Michael Lista: Absolutely, Absolutely. And the ability to get lost, I think, makes us good. But you don’t want to succumb to it. You don’t want to actually get lost. Right. You want to make yourself sort of available enough that you’re doing the story justice without bringing, you know, bringing harm to yourself.
Jesse Brown: Michael, this has been really interesting. Thank you.
Michael Lista: Jesse, thank you so much for having me.
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