I read “Next of Kin” in 2002 and it changed my sense of what is possible in journalism. After reading it, I became a fanatic follower and student of David Finkel’s writing, past and (then) present, one of the many who try to figure out how he does it.

In “Next of Kin,” Finkel does the journalistic equivalent of a rare quadruple Axel in figure skating. First, he chisels out one of the core moral issues in a busy, complex, contemporary debate (in this case, the question of what revenge is). Then he adds layers of perfectly-used reporting (in this case, items such as the brutal autopsy report, among many other examples). Third, Finkel crafts a kind of irresistible jazz or blues piece with his writing. The pacing, the word choices are so exquisite (“Her hair was brushed. Her hands were fists. She wore a dress.”). And finally, Finkel’s architecture—the scaffolding of his stories—are the best. As a writer you can never ever replicate them, and they are so unique it can be hard (though I’ve tried) to steal even the ethos of his structural ideas. However, the empathy and obsession he has with his subjects, and his commitment to writing that demands readers read, remain a beacon, an aspiration for me year after year.

Next of Kin

By David Finkel
The Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2000


The plan Taryn Potts came up with was simple: Just stand up in the courtroom and run. Up the aisle. Past the guards. Past the lawyers. Right at him. Right at his cold, mean, guilt-free, despicable face.

No. Even better:

Here’s what we’ll do, Taryn’s friend Helen suggested. I’ll come to court, too, and I’ll bring a friend in a wheelchair, and at some point I’ll tip the wheelchair over, and when the guards are distracted by the crash—that’s when you go at him.

No, better even than that, Taryn thought the next day as she sat in the courtroom in Chesterfield, Va., third row back, the moment at hand, watching him on the witness stand as he tried to save his life.

“Do you want some water?” his lawyer asked.

“No, I’m all right,” he said.

And Taryn thought: I’ll stand on the arms of the chair.

“Tell them your full name, please,” the lawyer continued.

“Everett Lee Mueller,” he said.

And Taryn thought: I’ll jump. […] And land on him, screaming: You killed her. […]

But instead, as the prosecutor took over the questioning, and Mueller angrily said, “You want to put me on death row, that’s no goddamned problem,” she stayed where she was.

Her hair was brushed.

Her hands were fists.

She wore a dress.

“Get this goddamned [expletive] over with so I can go smoke a cigarette,” Mueller said.

The crime involved rape, mutilation and murder. The victim was a 10-year-old girl.

And Taryn, the mother of the victim, remained seated, and sickened, and civilized, wondering whether to surrender to revenge.

David Finkel © 2000 The Washington Post.

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