The story begins in February of 2002, when a reporter in Oregon contacted Finkel, a former New York Times Magazine writer, with a startling piece of news.
A young, highly intelligent man named Christian Longo, on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for killing his entire family, has recently been captured in Mexico, where he'd taken on a new identity -- Michael Finkel of the New York Times.
After Longo's arrest, the only journalist the accused murderer will speak with is the real Michael Finkel. And as the months until Longo's trial tick away, the two men talk for dozens of hours on the telephone, meet in the jailhouse visiting room, and exchange nearly a thousand pages of handwritten letters.
With Longo insisting he can prove his innocence, Finkel strives to uncover what really happened to Longo's family, and his quest becomes less a reporting job than a psychological cat-and-mouse game, sometimes redemptively honest, other times slyly manipulative.
Finkel's pursuit pays off only at the end, when Longo, after a lifetime of deception, finally says what he wouldn't even admit in court -- the whole, true story. Or so it seems.
Read an excerpt from Chapter One:
This is a true story. Sometimes -- pretty much all the time -- I wish that parts of this story weren't true, but the whole thing is. I feel the need to emphasize this truthfulness, right here at the start, for two reasons. The first is that a few of the coincidences in this account may seem beyond the bounds of probability, and I'd like to affirm that everything herein, to the best of my abilities, has been accurately reported: Every quote, every description, every detail was gathered by me either through personal observation, an interview, a letter, a police report, or evidence presented in a court of law. No names have been changed, no identifying specifics altered. Anything I did not feel certain of, I left out.
The second reason is painful for me to admit. The second reason I am making such an overt declaration of honesty is that, relatively recently, I was fired from one of the more prestigious journalism jobs in the world -- writer for the New York Times Magazine -- for passing off as true a story that was, instead, a deceptive blend of fact and fiction.
The firing occurred in February of 2002, soon after I was caught. The following week, on Feb. 21, the Times made my dismissal public by publishing a six-paragraph article, on page A-3, under the headline EDITORS' NOTE. The article's final line announced that I would no longer work for the New York Times -- a line that, I feared, represented the guillotining of my writing career.
Sure enough, within weeks of the appearance of the Editors' Note, I was flogged by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, an Associated Press report, a dozen different web sites, several European, Mexican, and South American papers, and in a four-minute report on National Public Radio.
One writer described my actions as "sleazy," "arrogant," "offensive," and "pernicious," and then concluded that people like me should "burn in Journalism Hell."
I had been informed of the contents of the Editors' Note a few days before its publication, and I'd assumed that responses of this sort might arise. When someone in the fraternity of journalists fails, it's important for the profession to demonstrate that it can be at least as fierce toward its own as it is toward others. So I devised a plan to shield myself. Once the note was made public, I would retreat into a kind of temporary hibernation: I would not answer my phone, or collect my mail, or check my e-mail. The Editors' Note, I figured, would be posted on the Times' online edition shortly before midnight on Feb. 20, 2002. I live in Montana, where the local time is two hours behind New York, so I determined that I would commence my hibernation at 10 P.M.
Less than ninety minutes before the cutoff time, my phone rang. I answered. It was a newspaper reporter for the Portland Oregonian; his name, he said, was Matt Sabo. He asked to speak with Michael Finkel of the New York Times. I took a breath, steeled myself, and said, resignedly, "Well, congratulations. You're the first to call."
"I'm the first?" he said. "I'm surprised."
"Yes," I said. "You're the first. I didn't think anyone would call until tomorrow, after the story runs."
"No," he told me, "the story isn't running until Sunday."
"No," I said, "it's running tomorrow -- 's already at the presses."
"But I'm still writing it," he said, "so it won't be in until Sunday."
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"What are you talking about?" he said.
"I'm talking about the Editors' Note," I said. "Isn't that what you're talking about?"
"No," he said. "I'm calling about the murders."
The foregoing is excerpted from "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa" by Michael Finkel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.