Girl Detectives

Intro from Jay Allison: Sue Mell is an artist and writer and she's also been a stand-up comedian. This is her first radio piece. It's not funny. It's about the aftermath of a friend's murder, and the desire for resolution.

Listen to “Girl Detectives”

About the Story

In the year and a half before Jay died, I’d been pursuing a career as a stand up comic. Jay was my biggest fan–I used to email him my material every week while he impatiently waited for me to have my own sit com. But I wasn’t always that happy. I struggled with finding my true voice and I sometimes talked about finding other venues–maybe doing a one woman show–something with greater dimension. I thought about trying to put something together for “This American Life”. I kept a file of ideas to the side.

After Jay died, I didn’t feel like I could do any of my old material–after everything that had happened–I just didn’t feel like that same person anymore. I stopped getting on stage. But my voice ran on in my head and I still wanted to do…something.

After those first five weeks in North Carolina I went up to NY for a month for a job. One weekend I was alone staying in a friend’s apartment, still very much steeped in grief, and I found myself poking around the TAL website. It was the week after Jake Warga’s story “When Brian Took His Life” had aired and I ended up at Transom listening to the archived version there.

Hearing that story was the thing that gave me the freedom to do Girl Detectives–the idea that I could do something that sad, that dark, that personal–and that there might be a place for it. And here was this web site that could give me the tools to do it.

The Process

I recorded the interview–one 90 minute tape–on a Marantz PMD 222 tape deck with an Audio Technica 835B shotgun mic.

In May, when I first made plans to record, we were still waiting for an outcome from the second medical examiner–we thought more would happen with the case–that there might be a trial. I didn’t think I’d be able to talk about things publicly for a year or more but I wanted to get their story on tape while they still remembered things clearly in their heads.

I knew I was going back to North Carolina in June for the beach trip we take every year along with some other friends so I added two days on to the end of my stay to do interviews. I did a sort of practice story before I went–about two friends of mine who’d gotten married to each other twice–so I could get used to using the equipment.

I wanted everyone to feel as easy and relaxed about it all as possible. I thought I’d do something like record 2 hours the first day for all the stuff about Jay’s death and the police investigation and then 2 more hours the next for the story of them going down into the creek. Maybe interview their husbands as well–see what they thought about their wives having done this thing.

But by the end of June Laura had just sold her house and bought a smaller one and we pretty much spent every minute of those two days franticly packing up her life. People were coming and going with boxes and rolls of tape. I had a terrible cold. I felt guilty taking time out to record and I had a lot of doubts about making Susan and Stephanie go through everything again on tape. I worried about how upsetting that might be for them… and also for me. Basically, I wondered what the hell it was I thought I was doing. But I’d bought this equipment and I’d lugged it down there–I was determined to follow through.

Susan only had about an hour to spare. She drove over to Stephanie’s between some business appointments and picking up her two boys. Stephanie had all 4 of her kids and I think one of her nephews. She made them all go outside and play in the back yard–they were so loud I made her close the windows even though it was hot–you can still hear them playing in the background. I had Susan and Stephanie sit on the couch and I sat on the edge of the coffee table so I could get close enough with the mic.

The interview felt like a runaway train–I didn’t feel at all in control of the situation. I’d known Susan from before Jay’s death but I’d only gotten to know Stephanie in this terrible context. I felt like I was taking these two people who were really Laura’s friends and pulling them into my world, into my agenda. They both seemed to have a lot of things they were determined to say for the record that weren’t necessarily the things I was after and a lot of the details were confusing on tape–I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten what I wanted or even anything I could use for a story but…at least I’d done it. About a week later we found out that the second medical examiner’s report was a dead end.

I made a tape log and used a Griffin iMic USB adapter to get the sound into Pro Tools Free on my iBook. I had two audio tracks–one from each side of the tape. I created regions on each of them that indicated where the things were that I thought I might want and I used a list of those regions to try and organize the story. Making versions of that region list was more helpful for me than using the tape log. I copied and pasted from those two tracks onto a third sort of “master” track and tried to get things down to a manageable size. I wrote narration around the edited tape. I tried to use the narration to create a beginning and an end and, in the middle, to move things forward. I poured over the TAL comic book and was constantly haunted by the part where they say that it isn’t enough to have a little story–that you have to explain what it means. I listened to the story over and over–trying to hear what that was–trying to make sense of it for the listener, to make sense of it for myself.

I recorded the narration (several times, in a closet with blankets hung on the walls), imported that track and, again, copied and pasted into the master track. I was unable at this point to figure out how to import music from a CD into Pro Tools. Frustrated and impatient, I bounced that track to disk and sent a taped copy to TAL.

About an hour after I dropped that in the mail, I figured out my music problem—a simple issue of where you save the file—and I thought, “Well, at least I can send a really finished version to Transom”. I imported the bounced master track into a new file and added the music in there. I’d originally had all these ideas for things with lyrics that seemed apt but when it came down to it they didn’t really seem right and I was limited by the number of tracks I could use. The song is “Green Arrow” by Yo La Tengo. I copied and pasted pieces of the song onto a separate (grouped) track using slip mode and adjusted the levels by hand making points with the mouse. I out put it onto tape by selecting this second music track along with the master one.

In September I got email from Chelsea Merz saying they really liked Girl Detectives but that it needed further editing before it could be accepted. Her editorial suggestions helped me achieve a clearer and more dramatic story line and brought the piece to a more appropriate length for radio. Initially, I’d included a lot of anecdotal material from the original interview which I was very attached to but which ultimately took away from the script I’d written.

Sue Mell

Sue Mell

Sue got her start right here at Transom this past December with "Girl Detectives". She lives in San Francisco where she works as a photo stylist and an illustrator and is a frequent contributor to Invisible Ink.


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  • Jay Allison


    Girl Detectives

    Sue Mell is an artist and writer and she’s also been a stand-up comedian. This is her first radio piece. It’s not funny. It’s about the aftermath of a friend’s murder, and the desire for resolution. When it didn’t come from the police investigation, she and her friends decided to take on the task themselves. This story is compelling and the storytelling makes you feel this has happened to you, and you wish it hadn’t.

    This is also one of those pieces that makes us proud of what Transom is doing. Sue came to the site via This American Life to listen to another piece, When Brian Took His Life. She wrote, "Hearing that story was the thing that gave me the freedom to do Girl Detectives — the idea that I could do something that sad, that dark, that personal — and that there might be a place for it. And here was this web site that could give me the tools to do it."

    The Transom team gave a little editorial advice on this piece and we were thinking about helping with the production, which we sometimes do, but we thought it was better to let it play the way Sue made it, using the tools she found here and her determination to tell. We think it’ll stick with you.

  • Sam Judice


    Girl Detectives

    I found Girl Detectives to be a very powerful, rich and haunting commentary on some very subtle ( and not so subtle) forces in American society as well as in human nature. I look forward to hearing more of Sue Mell’s insights, observations and artistic expressions.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    this one requires some
    processing time before responding…

    It’s important…
    and so sad

    (or the other way around)

    until I can say anything coherent, I’d like to at least say "thank you" Thank you for starting an important and difficult awakening and dialog.

    The title really gets me. It sounds like so many stories wherein the cartoonish girls get the bad guy in the end. The world is a funny place in cartoon and comedy land, where everyone is inept and in denial but not dangerous. So in this story it was even more sad not to get the resolution

    As you say, women and others are not supposed to make a fuss.
    I wonder about the emotions expressed and not expressed.
    (something I wonder about in general in life and in all media, fyi.)
    I wonder about how nobody screamed or swore or cried in this piece. nobody talked about the loss really starkly

    Even here, nobody wanted to make too much of a fuss?

    How DARE they assume suicide? Do people really slit their own throats? Is it even possible? How many such deaths are there each year? and how many are judged suicides? And if someone wanted to kill themselves for money reasons, wouldn’t they somehow avoid ruining a car? sorry if this is too graphic
    I wonder what police in general would say. They need more funding? Do we not hear that cry much because they don’t want to broadcast how limited they are ?
    Girl Detectives: They’re Not Funny Anymore

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    just want to make sure my comments don’t sound like a criticism. It’s more like a question, are all the women more subdued now, after this pommeling experience? It seems people either get more resigned or more radical.

    Do you think there’s a narrow passage for voices to be heard by the police or media in situations like this? You have to be squeaky, but not shrill…

  • Sue Mell


    Sue’s Reply

    Nannete—thanks for your post.

    "…nobody screamed or swore or cried in this piece".

    An interesting point. In recording the narration, at one point I tried to add "emphasis". When I played it back, I found that the additional emotion seemed manipulative and false even though the feelings were genuine. I felt it was more powerful to let the words speak for themselves and I hoped the emotion would resonate in the listener.

    Originally, among other things, I’d included a part of the interview where my anger sort of peaks in talking about the police– but it’s an unclear, stuttering, distancing moment. It shut the listener out and my presence at that point in Susan and Stephanie’s story was distracting.

    "How DARE they assume suicide? " etc.

    I can’t tell you how many hours of our lives were spent pursuing these very questions and many, many more like them. In doing this piece, I wanted people to experience some of the things that we felt—the sadness, the frustration, the helplessness. I didn’t know if the story would hold the same things for someone not personally involved . To hear you asking the same questions we did, well…as uncomfortable as it may feel…it also tells me that, in that respect, I’ve been effective.

    The question of the power that people in positions of authority like the police have, and the things that they can do with that power, is one that I raise– but it’s not one that I have an answer for.

    "…are all the women more subdued now, after this pommeling experience? It seems people either get more resigned or more radical."

    l can’t speak for the other women in this regard, but for me, the thing I feel more than resigned or radical is…sobered. That, and an unending desire to make myself clearly heard. In my own life, as a person, as a woman, I still very much worry about being, as Stephanie puts it, " a pain in the ass", but now I’m probably more inclined to be one anyway.

    The difference for me, is that when my impulse is to scream and cry and curse, what I’m always reaching for now, is words. There are many ways to make a fuss–my hope…is that this piece is one of them.

    "Do you think there’s a narrow passage for voices to be heard by the police or media in situations like this?"

    I suppose I would have to admit that in a small, dark corner of my brain I harbor the fantasy that some forensic genius will hear this piece, offer up his services up for free, fly down to North Carolina, and bring us all peace of mind, a sense of justice, and some financial ease to Laura’s life. But in my heart, what I know, is that it wouldn’t bring Jay back—and that this, in loss, is the thing we desire above all else.

  • Sean Og



    Great job. I was impressed by the women and moved by the story.

    Acronym – TAL. It would have been nice to have it defined – spent ten minutes googling to learn it was ‘This American Life!’ But in the context of this very difficult story I can’t really moan about that …

    Again, excellent job.

  • Jackson


    Do I feel such a bastard…

    not that that will stop me, of course. This is an important and fundamentally, potentially, a good story.

    Rather than dive immediately in the shallow end of the pool, let me start with a few questions: were all of these interviews done in one and the same place? I hear overlaps between Stephanie, Susan, and Laura. Were all of the interviewees present at all points in time when the tape was rolling?

    Who’s talking when? 13 minutes into the piece and I still don’t know the different voices.

    In the end, let me put it this way: this is a story about a crime, and the examination of crimes turns on evidence. And as a listener to a story about a crime, I feel like I am not getting all the evidence.

    Not to take away anything from all the tape: there are sheer emotional facts in the story. But the commentary around 16:00 into the piece reflects, I think, the basic problem with this story: This is the moment where the narrator says:

    "Their job is to comfort us, take away all our fears, make it all better, and the message for us as women, is that we shouldn’t make a fuss.”

    There are two versions of "us" in this one paragraph — us as recipients of women’s caregiving, us as women.

    Until now, I have not sensed that what is being described here is a gender story. There are no male voices saying really stupid things — not that my gender can’t be completely idiotic, of course. But still, there are no male voices in this piece at all. Why not a cop, a DA, a medical examiner?

  • Robin Amer


    step up to the mic

    congratulations to sue on her first story and for taking the risk to produce something so personal.

    my one complaint is on the music mixing. i was really distracted by the music coming in and out without much rhyme or reason. i feel like the voices alone would have been more powerful. or perhaps just different music. in general i think this song is kind of overused, but also i just think it wasn’t the right fit for the story. too calm and sleepy for something so disturbing.

    I agree with a previous comment about wanting to hear other voices. I feel like it’s times like this when you should go out and raise hell! why not use the piece as a chance to do exactly what you felt like you were being denied, the right to demand answers and closure? I kept wanting to hear Sue call up the investigator in charge of the case and ask him questions…why did they insist it was suicide? was he really just afraid of rocking the boat and making people feel unsafe? at least let them answer the accusations (however justified). and if the investigator or attorney’s answers were in any way patronizing or defensive (as i feel like we’re led to think from the piece), i think it would have proved Sue’s point even more.

  • Sue Mell




    Why "a bastard"?

    " I hear overlaps between Stephanie, Susan, and Laura. Were all of the interviewees present at all points in time when the tape was rolling?
    Who’s talking when? 13 minutes into the piece and I still don’t know the different voices."

    Ah. I agree. This is a problem that occurred in the back and forth over time of tape and digital versions of the story between me and Chelsea at Transom. There is a sentence that was inadvertently cut that identifies Stephanie as the second speaker other than Susan (and myself as narrator). One of my concerns in regard to this posted version of the story was that people would be confused and, like you did, assume that Laura was speaking. There was only one interview—which consisted of me taping Susan and Stephanie at the same time—hence the overlapping—they certainly did.

    The piece, from the point of view of my thinking in creating it, was more about telling what had happened with the way things had played out for us –which sounds kind of defensive but I don’t mean it that way—just trying to reconstruct how Girl Detectives came to be what it is at this point.

    From the beginning, I wanted to do some kind of piece about Jay, about my loss. Then I heard about Susan and Stephanie going down to the creek. Their story had a lot of comic elements, most of which didn’t really come across in the interview or were cut because they didn’t fit with where the piece ended up. The idea of a comic thing in the middle of a tragedy—the extremity of that– was the hook that interested me in taping them.

    "But still, there are no male voices in this piece at all. Why not a cop, a DA, a medical examiner?"

    And why is it you would assume that all those roles would be filled by men? (Sorry, I couldn’t help that one, but it does illustrate the fact that, much as things may have changed, we still live in what is primarily a patriarchal society. However, for the record, the chief detective on Jay’s case was…a woman and Laura’s lawyers were a husband and wife team.)

    In answer to your question…. I was never prepared to do any "investigative reporting" and the result of that is, as you point out, one sided. This story could be said to be biased or unfair in that regard but…right or wrong–I was never interested in doing an expose. The piece has the feel of investigative reporting but…it isn’t. Also, the story wasn’t intended to be an expression of "women’s voices" but…at the same time, as you point out, all the people in this piece are women.

    "I have not sensed that what is being described here is a gender story".

    I’m glad to hear that—it isn’t intended to be one—it’s intended to be a story about loss. But in exploring that, I saw things, I heard things, that resonated with my own issues about speaking up and those issues are inseparably intertwined with gender ones. The thing that I struggle with personally (and that I raise in the piece) are the ways in which we did and didn’t act and how those, in hindsight, seemed to be influenced by our gender and the historical roles of women.

    "And I wonder at the fact, that at the same time women are supposed to be so "helpless", they’re expected to take care of their children, their husbands, their friends… to comfort us and soothe away our fears… to kiss us and make it all better… and how, as women, the message most deeply ingrained in our heads is that whatever happens, we shouldn’t make a fuss."

    And yes, as you point out, this is a tricky sentence—I’m speaking about women and I’m speaking as one at the same time. But the sentences that follow it are meant to be the conclusion of that reflection. That in the end, the story (I hope) is about death and loss—the sense of helplessness those things create– and the search for resolution—internally. These things are not just the territory of women, but of us all.


    "my one complaint is on the music mixing. i was really distracted by the music coming in and out without much rhyme or reason. i feel like the voices alone would have been more powerful. or perhaps just different music. in general i think this song is kind of overused, but also i just think it wasn’t the right fit for the story. too calm and sleepy for something so disturbing"

    The music…yes. This is one of those "if I knew then what I know now" kind of things. I still like this song for the piece (I was unaware that it is frequently used) for it’s sense of yearning and faint ominous overtones. I agree that it’s use in the piece is problematic. This was the best I could do at the time. I would mix things differently today.

    "I kept wanting to hear Sue call up the investigator in charge of the case and ask him questions…"

    I do hear this and the similar questions raised by both Nannette and Jackson. Again, this sounds defensive but that really isn’t the kind of a piece that I was interested in or felt capable of doing. I knew that when this piece was posted people would question what I/we did and didn’t do. That is also part of what the piece is about. With Girl Detectives, I did what I, as a person, as a storyteller, could do with these events and how they sat in my life. If, as a piece of radio, you feel the story fails on that account, I can only accept that as it is.


    In my notes on the piece, I do first mention "This American Life" and then continue to refer to it as TAL (how they refer to themselves on their site.) I was also confused the first time I saw that acronym and deliberately spelled it out the first time I mention it but perhaps I should have included "TAL" in parenthesis…

    And Nannette—

    My apologies for misspelling your name in my first post!

  • Sue Mell


    Re: Male Voices

    It’s difficult to keep my feelings separate and stick with the subject at hand. I don’t want to squash the discussion in any way but…for the record…I wanted to point to my "About the Story" notes–where I state that I originally wanted to interview Susan and Stephanie’s husbands as well but that it didn’t pan out that way time wise. If it had, I would have had a more rounded piece gender-wise but I was always only interested in telling the story from "our" side, the side of the people that knew Jay. I’m hearing that people see this as a short coming in the piece but… I don’t find myself able to agree.

    What is it about what you hear here in this version that makes you wish to hear from the cops? If it’s "fairness in reporting" I have no interest in that –this isn’t a "fair" story–it’s only our story. As for the police, the lawyers and the medical examiners–male and female– this piece is as fair as I’ll ever be on their behalf.

  • Jay Allison



    Just for balance, I didn’t think of this as a gender piece particularly and didn’t miss other voices.

    I might have mixed the music differently though. 😉

    hey, look, I made a winky face.

  • Alex Schon



    I like this story a lot.

    It doesn’t seem like a gender story to me . Jay has a presence in this piece. This may sound superficial but this piece is very visual; I "saw" a lot of men in this story. It never occurred to me that there were only female voices.

    This story left me wanting to know more. I was frustrated with the cops, with their diagnosis that Jay’s death was a suicide, etc..BUT the radio piece didn’t leave me unsatisfied. I’m grateful that Sue never went beyond her own understanding of Jay’s death because that’s how these life situations often unfold: we are left without answers. That we, as listeners, are left without answers, somehow unifies us with the characters. That’s what makes this story effective.

  • cw


    I Didn’t Notice

    That there were no male voices in this piece, but now that I notice it, I think it fits. The voices of authority (criminal justice/legal system/etc) spinning disempowered citizens this way and that in this story give the patriarchy plenty of airtime. I think people tend to be uncomfortable w/ the word "patriarchy" for some reason, as if them is feminist fighting words. But what is the whole country doing if not looking to big daddy george to arrest everybody and bounce us on his knee and make it okay? I thought this story was about disillusionment w/ the big daddy will take care of it culture, and I liked that. I don’t need to hear big daddy complaining about uppity womens in it or sounding dumb. I think that would diminish the piece.

    I thought one strength of this piece was that it acknowledged that knowing what happened wouldn’t have changed the overall outcome/grief of all involved. And I found
    myself wondering about the financial (insurance) loss though– as in, how often do police depts. classify things as suicides (or arson, etc) and are there financial/political factors that encourage or influence this?

    I didn’t care that this wasn’t reported in an unbiased journalistic fashion, because I perceived it as a personal piece.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg


    Point of View & Voice, not gender


    as an artist you probably know that everyone’s reaction is mostly a conversation with themselves, the voices in their own heads…

    I think you’re getting numerous reactions because your piece is extraordinarily ambitious in the sense that it is about many different, important, difficult things in both personal and social realms.

    to both come clean about my own internal conversation, and to dispel any notion youmight have that "everyone" here is highly accomplished… I’ll say

    that this piece and its dilemmas — the choices about what narrative voice and what other voices to use –reminds me of the questions that have kept me from getting on with a project of my own.

    Your fantasy is that a forensic specialist would hear this and go for it

    My fantasy for you is that you’ll end up doing stand up or other performance about it. And that’s where the forensic type or team of class action lawyers will come out of the audience. And others with this experience will come out and get together…

    They’ll respond to your own voice
    the first one you said you identified:
    Your grieving self teamed up with the one Jay used to cheer on

    Because it touches on so much, your piece reminds me of many others. On this American Life (3 or fewer years ago) a mother recounts (?)a decade later? the story of losing her first daughters in a car accident. It was totally her own story/essay. she wasn’t screaming, or yelling, but it was clear, even in the nearly deadpan delivery, how sad and angry she still is. And I understood so much more. For example, it is still hard for the woman to have to answer, when people ask "How many children do you have?" "Two." and stop there instead of "Two live ones, the other two died."

    On the other hand their are the stories delivered more like a report, with a more distant narrator. that’s the kind where we’d expect to hear from the police.

    Your story is a bit of a combination…
    When reviewers complain about a movie or something being confusing because it’s not sure what genre it is, I often question that need for conformity or predictability. but I guess I’m suggesting that could be considere here or in a future version in this or another medium. i’d like to hear more about your own personal experience, your own voice.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    I don’t mean to totally discount Jackson’s reaction.
    Gender is there in the title and in the business about being a nice girl

    This touches on so many sweeping, roiling topics. It could be several persons’ life work to make sense of it.

    Meanwhile, If there are to be no more damsels and heroes, then we have to pitch in altogether to take care of each other, no?

  • Jackson


    I’ll follow Nanette’s lead…


    Nanette offers a really good point here. (At least it was "here" before she leapt in while I was pondering this post; I am actually referring to her prior post.)

    What you present in this piece is a genre buster.

    And I think what Nanette is actually saying in her prior post when she hopes "for you" that you will return to stand-up (forgetting that such radio as this is frequently stand-up already; only we’re sitting down in front of a microphone when we do it) is this: Where are you here?

    I fell for the gender red herring because it came up so early — the topic was in the air 30 seconds into the piece. Other ears (better trained, more seasoned) scarcely twitched on that one.

    But now that I think about it, the circumstances of Jay’s death not only silenced Laura (forgive me, but do we hear her at all in here?), but it also silenced you.

    You spoke earlier of the comedic element of the girl detectives going down to the brook. I listened to the story again and it’s amazing how quickly that part of the story goes, and how immediately (more importantly) it disappears from the ear. It’s like a trace memory.

    18+ minutes is a lot of time, and over that time, we listeners not to this story born are going to forget things. I wonder if what this doesn’t really need is a time trial: say, an 8-minute version that forces you to consider what this story absolutely positively has to say.

    Once you establish that, then you can return to the dance mix.

  • Sue Mell


    More From Sue Mell

    Thanks to everyone who’s posted recently.

    In the book "Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs" edited by John and Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter the artist Julian Schnabel says something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in regard to this discussion. Here’s the quote:

    "I went to the Art school at the University of Houston. I had a lot of trouble there. I think the main thing I learned was how to fight with people and protect myself. You know? Because it’s hard—you don’t know what you’re doing all the time and you can’t explain it. Why should you have to? You’re dealing with your subconscious, you know? Just make the thing. Through the making of it you figure out what it is that you were thinking or what you were feeling."

    I’m still working on the fighting part… but all the artwork and writing and performing I’ve done has always been, in essence, a way for me to hear what I was really thinking and feeling and that never seemed more clear to me than when I was working on Girl Detectives.

    Alex wrote: "That we, as listeners, are left without answers, somehow unifies us with the characters." That certainly was something I was after.

    The sadness, the frustration, the lack of resolution — those are things that I have made the listener feel as the teller of the story. Those emotions are not necessarily inherent — they are feelings that have been brought to bear in the way the story unfolds. That is where I am in the story. You could for example tell this story as maudlin, or one of pity, or one of anger and hatred just to name a few. The story, this story, is about Jay’s death and about some of the things that 4 women — Susan and Stephanie, Laura and I — did in it’s wake; it’s about our efforts to keep ourselves from drowning.

    I don’t really care about genres — I’m interested in stories that move people – I want people to feel what I feel – to see how the world looks to me even if that view is not crystal clear.

    At the moment there are a couple of possibilities in the works for other versions of this story. Nothing is quite confirmed as yet but in both these instances the story would be expanded. I would say this seems to be the one universal comment; Girl Detectives, as it plays here on Transom, seems to leave people wanting more albeit the content of what that "more" is varies greatly.

    Also…for CW— a friend of Jay and Laura’s told us that in the small town where he grew up in the Mid West there were no "murders" — every death that was not from natural causes was determined to be "suicide". "Are there financial/political factors that encourage or influence this?" Nothing but.

  • Sue Mell


    My Criticism

    So far, with the exception of the comments about the music, I feel that the suggestions people have made wouldn’t necessarily make Girl Detectives a better piece just a different one. It occurs to me that maybe I should have begun the discussion here:

    This is what I think is wrong with the piece: for me, there’s a way in which it just doesn’t flow. It makes me think of something that can happen when you’re writing material for standup. Stripping a joke down to it’s necessary elements is what you’re always striving for — that efficiency — the most funny in the least amount of time, but sometimes, when you do that, the joke suffers — it loses some of it’s life. Logically, the humor should rest purely in the set up and the punch line but it just isn’t true and often, after editing, what still works on paper is somehow no longer as alive on stage.

    And there’s a way in which Girl Detectives as it is here somehow doesn’t match the fullness of what I envision in my mind. Despite the pacing of the piece, which is slow and even drags in places, there’s a way in which the piece feels rushed to me. In which I, as the listener, feel rushed. Like hurrying though a gallery – you see all the paintings but somehow you don’t have enough time to really take them in. I do think doing different things with music and the transitions could certainly help this– at least to some degree.

    There’s so much information necessary to this piece, so much set up just to get to Susan and Stephanie’s story of going into the creek which ends up very truncated here. And then there’s the aftermath of all these events—that no further clues or evidence of any kind were found. There’s our feeling about who Jay was and how he was incapable of the things the police suggest and there are all the other issues that I raise about loss, and women and authority and helplessness as well as the emotional impact of how things played out and my own search as the story teller for comprehension and resolution. None of these are things I would want to leave out but right now it’s like a couch with too many people sitting on it—everybody’s on the couch but it’s a little squished—there isn’t really enough room to breathe. I don’t want to get rid of any of the people, I think I need to find the right way to make a bigger couch. (And possibly a better metaphor.)

  • Jackson


    Onward through the fog

    Hey, Sue:

    There are several phrases that leap to mind at this: You’ve been a trooper; you’ve been a good sport, etc. etc.

    But the thing that strikes me about the discussion surrounding Girl Detectives is this: the sheer depth of response the piece has provoked. This isn’t a story about nerve, but it’s touching so many different "nerves" (for want of a better phrase) that a number of us, for reasons great and small, have chimed in.

    The critique is, of course, not the Editorial Experience. There was an interesting story about shoppers on this evening’s NewsHour that turned on the problem of choice as an aspect of economy. There are people — some of them are in this room even as we speak — who are called maximizers. Their desire for the best buy knows no bounds. There are others — also present here — called satisficers. Sure they want a deal, the best buy, etc. But they will be happy to make a purchase that simply addresses their needs.

    I know I suggested earlier that you might try to squeeze what you really want to say in Girl Detectives down to 8 mins. Part of me wants to apologize for that, because in the course of the editorial process, you’ve probably jettisoned already bits of sound you once thought vital to the text.

    In my experience, the editorial process is the struggle between the Maximizer and the Satisficer — or, in the case of three-fingered Chuckles the Clown in the Night of the Hunter edition of the Simpsons, the struggle between LUV and HAT.

    One result of this was that the story that finally reached the public was not necessarily the story you had imagined. And yet it remains a compelling story.

    You mention in your lede to this story the existence of Transom as a place that even gave you the tools to pursue this work.

    Were it not for Transom, how do you think you might have explored the meaning of Jay’s death in your life differently?

  • Sue Mell


    If Not For Transom…

    Hey Jackson.

    That’s a funny question in that I never really thought of exploring it any other way and I’m not really sure why that is.

    I’d had this thing that I’d been doing–stand up–that Jay had been so supportive of, that now I couldn’t face. To do a radio piece was two things—for one, it was something I’d wanted to do, that I’d thought about often, and I think one of the most common responses to death is to feel like you’d better do the things you wanna do while you have the chance, and two, it was a compromise I made to a friend of mine that insisted I shouldn’t quit comedy out of my grief. There’s a lot of hanging out and social sucking up required to get stage time in the stand up world. I made a deal with my friend: that I would literally spend the time I would normally spend hanging around in clubs and open mikes working on stuff for radio if he would quit pestering me about getting on stage.

    It was a kind of compromise to Jay as well—that I would still do something. Maybe eventually even something funny. I’m working on something now about the things people do for love that’s got a humorous spin. I don’t know why "doing the things you wanna do" no longer seemed to apply to stand up except that it no longer felt to me like it was "enough".

    Without Transom, I might have ended up submitting something to This American Life that was in only transcript form—sort of a paste up of tape and written material—or even something just totally written, like a non-fiction story. I really did rely heavily on the This American Life comic book and they talk about editing software but…I probably would have been daunted without Jeff Towne’s Tools column and the info available at Transom. (Plus I’m kind of stubborn—I’d heard that this guy Jake had figured out how to do everything from Transom so I thought, "Well, if he can do it…")

    Privately, I also started painting again. Not doing illustration, but painting—abstractly. Something I hadn’t done in over 20 years and also peculiar in that it was the thing I fought against in college where I was perhaps one of only a handful of people that were interested in working…narratively. I found this soothing–not the paintings– the early ones in particular are full of anguish and motion and bloody color– but the after affect. The movement of that emotion on to paper. It was transforming– I remembered that I loved to paint for it’s own sake– it brought me relief. And the paintings sort of document my shift from a place of only grief and anger to my interest in expressing other things as well.

    I’d also like to tell everyone that TAL has expressed an interest in Girl Detectives. I don’t know any of the details as of yet other than that they’d like to expand the piece including…going back down to North Carolina and talking to more people. I haven’t spoken to anyone directly yet so…I don’t really know what they have in mind but it’ll be interesting to see where the piece goes from here.

  • Viki Merrick


    courageous comfort

    i’m perplexed about the structural issues being discussed here. I didn’t feel any need to single out any of the women in terms of identification. It wasn’t person specific – it was a group of friends trudging through an inexplicable, indigestable loss. It was a group of women, strong ones who couldn’t/wouldn’t sit still in the face of bureaucratic bs. It was a group of women whose lives got changed from action. But it wasn’t necessarily about girls either. Sue makes an interesting point about not making a fuss, but really, in mourning – not many want to make a fuss – male or female.
    Sue was part but not, so she could "report" – the rough quality of the tape kept me at a gathering, a scheming at a kitchen table. The rawness of the tape keeps things a little desperate and a lot real.
    I’ve experienced enough death to assume everyone reels from it in the same different ways. I never doubted anyone’s grief – I didn’t really think this was about grief, specifically.
    For me it was about preserving or defending the character of their friend and trying to see to it that his family be provided for. Action in grief, it’s a courageous thing, and talk about offering comfort. incomparable.

    I’m delighted to hear this might make it to national air – fix the music, but don’t let it get too polished or tamed! And by all means…if there’s a sequel…

  • Andrew Grohowski



    That song in the background is amazing and intriguiging. What is it?

  • Sue Mell


    That Song

    The song is Green Arrow by Yo La Tengo from the album I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One on Matador Records, 1997. Beware though…turns out that piece has been used quite a bit on public radio.

  • Rich Carlson


    Girl Detectives

    Sue and her friends might want to contact theVidocq Society at This is a group of professionals and amatuers that work on cold cases and unusual deaths. If you could interst them,and I think your piece would, they might be able to help.
    Good Luck,
    Rich Carlson

    p.s. if this is helpful let me know at

  • Jake Warga


    Good issues

    Few thoughts while listening:
    The ending tags could have been better used at start. Too many topics you wanted to touch on and were only able to do that (life, friendship, how women are treated, corruption of system…). Felt like you were trying too hard to sound like a TAL piece, that you might have told it differently if you didn’t have that format in mind. Why is this a radio piece? sounds like it was written on paper and not for sound. The subjects were used like quotes in a written story, I can see them in the, "script." The music became an annoying character that I feared hearing come up again, but soon it became so predictable, like an over-sugared brother hiding behind each corner ahead of me. There is nothing wrong with silence, this is when people really start to listen.

    Not that I have only teeth: I think it’s a story worth telling, and this is a great one to tell. The above comments were about medium, not message. You’re on the right track and I encourage you to continue and watch the over-modulations.

  • dubiins



    i like the piece. but that song, which is fine & good, is used too much. it is almost like a snl skit that does the same joke over and over until it is funny again.

  • Kathy Hall


    girl detectives

    I heard this on WBEZ while running errands in my car yesterday. It was so compelling that I sat in a hot car to hear the end of the piece. I was most impressed by the dedication of these friends. Since the advent of CSI shows and Law & Order, most of us think that crimes are usually solved. I feel the frustration of these women when it seems that the police have apparently given up on this case, call it a suicide (slitting one’s own throat?), and cheating a woman out of life insurance. Good radio.

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