An Attempted Podcast Murder: A Review of Kathleen Barber’s “Are You Sleeping”

Full disclosure: I got this for free from NetGalley. I probably don’t need to disclose that because this isn’t a glowing review.

An intriguing premise: Josie Buhrmann, who has changed her last name and moved to New York to escape bad memories in her small town, has to face her past when it’s turned into a hit podcast. As a HUUUGE true crime podcast fan, I was ready to read something showcasing modern tech and storytelling in a book. But then the predictable happened: my “insider” knowledge led me to be extremely critical of this book.

But seriously.

are you sleeping cover

A go-getter “journalist” (annoyingly named Poppy Parnell–uuuugh too much Harry Potter, everybody) who runs a conspiracy-driven true crime site magically gets the funding to create this week-by-week investigatory podcast. Please. We know you only get that kind of funding if you have worked for Ira Glass. And she is so much ruder and more invasive at Josie’s mother’s funeral than Sarah Koenig would ever dream of being. At one point, she shoves her arm through a closing door and pushes her way into Josie’s aunt’s house, you know, as you do to extremely traumatized people. She’s supposed to be an unsavory character, but it made me wonder if the author has ever listened to any true crime podcasts other than the first season of Serial. I can only think of one podcast host who might do something like that, and even he hides behind his computer and has a multitude of haters. And also he has a Patreon, not a corporate sponsor.

Also, the murder victim is Josie’s FATHER, who is a philandering college professor, not a pretty teenager with her whole life ahead of her. We are shown every (extremely short) podcast transcript and at no time does Poppy follow rule number one of any ID Channel episode or true crime Netflix documentary or podcast series: make people sad or at least interested in the fact that the victim died. I barely know anything about Josie’s dad. I think his name was Chuck?

My most petty complaint is about the use of social media as a storytelling tool (something that I normally give all the chances to because I think it’s so integral to modern fiction). Imaginary Reddit is used well, but the other interspersed “real world” social media conversations are supposed to be from Twitter. All the real down-and-dirty talk about true crime cases happen in secret Facebook groups. I recently had to leave one where one of the killer’s survivors was actually posting in the group and I bailed because they were extreeeeemely nasty and victim-blamey to her. Her being the survivor of a serial killer. This book thought it was getting real with a few fake mean-Tweets though. Cool.

As far as the actual content and story go, it would have been a better decision to double down on a literary fiction, character piece. I got the impression that the author was attempting to create sympathetic characters, but these attempts were dampened by the attempt to create a gripping thriller. As it ended up, the characters were well-defined but somewhat uncanny like realistically drawn cartoons, while the suspense was almost non-existent. If anything, I was just impatient for them to reveal which of the only possible three scenarios could have been the real cause of Chuck’s death. Also, they cut away from the only sex scene at the last minute, so it doesn’t even have that going for it.