Matt Wesolowski – Changeling (2019) and Beast (2020)

Preamble

As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future

Reviews aren’t guaranteed to be spoiler-free, so read on with caution!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.


Review (4 out of 5)

I’m reviewing these two books together because I read them in quick succession – the library actually delivered Beast to me first, so I held out to read them in order! – and because the key points I have are common to both of them.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, both true crime and fiction, and the format of course appeals to me. I’m really interested (in my academic research) in how stories and images are repurposed and reused across different media. So this series is entirely in my wheelhouse. The books are ably written and interestingly plotted. They are not formulaic in a substantive sense – the nature of the crimes and the people who tell their stories are not repetitive across books – although they are of course formulaic within the confines of the genre they mimic. Still, having read through the first four books, I am beginning to feel the confines of the task that Wesolowski has set himself. Looking ahead to Deity (2020) and Demon (2022), and just judging on the titles alone, the final two books of the series don’t seem like they break out of this mould.

There are ostensible supernatural elements to all of the stories, and the probing of their non-supernatural explanations is part of the unfolding of each book’s six episodes: a beast in the wilderness, figures not dissimilar to Slender Man, malevolent fairy folk, a vampire. There are dysfunctional relationships amongst teenagers. There are, of course, six stories. Some other elements recur: internet games, for example, in Hydra (2018) and Beast, or the seemingly popular figure who is a malevolent and manipulative bully in Six Stories (2016) and Beast, or the questionable parents and parenting throughout each book of the series.

For genre fiction of this type, however, one can forgive some repetition; indeed, it’s a common criticism of true-crime podcasts in particular! But one of the things that began to nag at me as I read through books three and four – aside from the book covers referring to each one as “an episode of Six Stories”, which I find irritating, given that they’re each supposed to contain six episodes apiece! – is the tentative nature with which King hovers on the edges of each podcast series. The format increasingly has ‘episodes’ per se and then certain non-episodes around them, such as ‘audio logs’ from King (Changeling). Perhaps I’m being overly demanding in wanting a novel to stick quite strictly to a podcast episode format, but this seems importance given King repeatedly tells us, the ‘listener’, that his goal is not to answer questions but simply to offer up information, and so all that’s important is the six stories within each series.

Although it is a niggly and perhaps formalist point, intuitively I think it relates to the broader issue of King’s presence within the books as a character and as a storyteller.

One of the most intriguing elements of the first book, Six Stories (2016), is that we discovered in the end that Scott King, the Six Stories host, was not in fact responsible for the content that had preceded it. Someone had copied his podcast format and put out the story in his name. I would have expected this to be important in the framing narrative around the subsequent stories, but it in fact disappears from view. I think this is a shame, as it might help us key into the story around the stories.

Books two, three, and four retain King’s reticence to be visible publicly, and Changeling offers something of an explanation by exploring the tragedy of King’s past (his father’s abuse of his mother, and his own kidnap and adoption, repressed until the story unfolds), putting him front and centre. But aside from discomfort with media (and social media) attention, it’s not yet clear what the foundations are for King’s chosen metier. He wants to tell stories, feels the urge to uncover answers, but also simultaneously not to. The methods at Wesolowski’s disposal for shading in King’s character despite the tight confines of the podcast form seem somewhat limited as we go through Changeling and then Beast, where King speaks of himself as beginning to come out of the shadows. It’ll be interesting to see whether the final Act of Six Stories (if we can mix our formalist metaphors for a moment!) will manage to deliver an entry into the spotlight that feels satisfying and fully grounded in the books that preceded it.


Matt Wesolowski’s Changeling and Beast were Books 55 and 56 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.

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