Caught Between Cases: Review of I Hope You’re Listening by Tom Ryan
Tom Ryan. I Hope You’re Listening. Albert Whitman & Company, 2020.
True crime’s ethical quandaries burgeon every week with a new documentary, another update to a cold case, another lurid television adaptation “based on actual events.” Critical concerns broadly boil down to true crime’s short road to exploitation. Immersion into the genre’s reigning medium of podcasts nevertheless offers a perhaps unexpected balm to the horrors of womanhood. Whether its popularity is due to its legitimization of female fears—no, you aren’t absurd for crossing the street at night—or because listening feels like a protective spell (“If I know this, it won’t happen to me.”), or simply for its indulgent sensationalization, there are enough true crime podcasts that top 50 rankings feature regularly. Tom Ryan’s YA novel I Hope You’re Listening synthesizes true crime podcasts’ dual nature as both voyeurs of suffering and purveyors of catharsis.
Following 2019’s award-winning Keep This to Yourself, Ryan’s newest book again summons the thrill of a queer protagonist navigating a tightly woven mystery at the crossroads of friendship and trauma. I Hope You’re Listening picks up ten years after the disappearance of Dee Skinner’s childhood friend, when another local girl goes missing and connections to the cold case arise. Hesitant to use her popular true crime podcast Radio Silent to solve the case and risk exposingherself as its anonymous host, Dee faces increasingly compelling pressure from the past as it pushes against her present. In an exploration of female friendship and romance, Ryan’s novel develops the morality of its generic foundations and the sticky precariousness of identity contingent on a moment in time. If many listeners’ response to true crime podcasts is “What if?” Dee’s question is instead “Why me?”
“Thoroughly YA, the thrills [in I Hope You’re Listening] are fast-paced, gratifying, and easy to track; it is a book particularly suitable for a gripping weekend escape.“
I Hope You’re Listening is a novel I would have wished for myself as a teenager. Though my own tastes run more to mystery than true crime, Ryan’s work appeals to any reader seeking the adrenaline of investigation. Thoroughly YA, the thrills are fast-paced, gratifying, and easy to track; it is a book particularly suitable for a gripping weekend escape.
Despite the centrality of abduction and violence, Ryan avoids the fetishization of female suffering and doesn’t present Dee’s queerness as a point of contention or trauma. Rather, he mitigates the potential heaviness of his subject with the mundanity of teenage life: the weight of Dee’s decisions regarding who to tell about her podcast or what to wear to a school dance meld comfortably with the overarching plot. Despite the imbalanced publishing industry that lurks behind YA’s pages, the genre has, over the past decade, become a wellspring for queer experience. However, protagonists whose primary conflict is neither their gender nor sexuality remain startlingly underrepresented. Tucked neatly into the novel, Dee’s bashful but not insecure exploration of romance is a simple but delightful treat. Her queerness is never a mystery to be solved.
At the novel’s helm, Dee is more reminiscent of a teenage Michelle McNamara than a twenty-first century Nancy Drew, capably diving into the deep waters of an unsolved crime. In a nod to literature’s armchair detectives who solve crimes without leaving the comfort of home, Radio Silent’s fans, the Laptop Detective Agency, demonstrate the unique resourcefulness and dedication often found within virtual communities. The novel’s emphasis on its moment-in-time works both to its benefit and disadvantage, however. Allusions to the 2016 presidential election are jarring; they shift the tone between the firmly modern and the already passé. Likewise, though true crime has existed for centuries and will likely continue for more—as its roots in the Newgate Novel and nineteenth-century murder broadsides suggest—Ryan’s novel may prove to be an artifact of a distinct moment in the genre’s history. Its engagement with the trendy combination of medium (a novel about a podcast) and genre (a queer YA true crime novel) assumes reader familiarity with both, even if that familiarity is not a requirement for enjoying the novel. I Hope You’re Listening takes its readers along for the ride no matter the reason for cracking its spine.
Through Dee’s history and her podcast Radio Silent, I Hope You’re Listening showcases a series of lives altered by singular moments of loss. Although the novel occasionally stumbles on overworked tropes of friendly but ineffectual law enforcement and dichotomously good and bad journalists, these faults also serve the novel’s larger investment in community and its investigation into the ethical quandary of telling others’ stories from the sidelines. Dee’s sign-off to Radio Silent entreats, “Is there something you can do to help? Listen up. Let’s try.” I Hope You’re Listening asks that we do the same.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on October 1, 2020 from a hard pitch emailed directly to the editor; the author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks. No review copy was arranged by ARB.