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Review: ‘Conviction,’ a true-crime podcast that’s more than a whodunit

Review: ‘Conviction,’ a true-crime podcast that’s more than a whodunit
Saki Knafo, host of the podcast "Conviction." (James Cabrera / Gimlet Media)

Less than a minute into the first episode of “Conviction,” the latest release from the Gimlet Media podcast network, the narration takes on a hardboiled tone.

“Manny Gomez, private eye, lives alone in a small apartment in a quiet part of the Bronx,” says Saki Knafo, the show’s host and writer. “He’s got this watch that’s really a camera, and he has a pen that’s really a knife. He says his favorite book is the Bible, but the one he talks about most often is ‘The Art of War.’ ”

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Those sentences carry echoes of classic pulp detective fiction, whose tough-talking gumshoes were also the stars of old-time radio serials, the “podcasts” of an earlier age.

It’s a nervy move to begin a nonfiction tale of crime, cops and municipal corruption with a big sidelong wink at Raymond Chandler. But Knafo knows what he’s doing. That Chandleresque introduction, like nearly all the writing in the seven-part series, is fine and sharp and gives off a gleam; it’s Knafo’s pen that’s the knife. He is invoking the hardboiled tradition ironically, setting us up for a real-life detective story that leaches out all traces of glamour — a darker shade of noir than any Philip Marlowe mystery.

Knafo is also laying thematic groundwork. Figuratively speaking, “Conviction” is all about watches that are really cameras and pens that are really knives: about the distance between what things appear to be and what they really are, about the moral fog that clouds distinctions between justice and vengeance, good guys and bad guys, truth and lies.

These conflicts are embodied by the series’ central figure, Gomez, a garrulous former cop, now private investigator, who calls himself “a punisher of the wicked … a bringer of justice for the good.”

Private Investigator Manuel "Manny" Gomez, subject of the new podcast "Conviction, in a scene from the 2018 documentary "Crime + Punishment" now streaming on Hulu.
Private Investigator Manuel "Manny" Gomez, subject of the new podcast "Conviction, in a scene from the 2018 documentary "Crime + Punishment" now streaming on Hulu. (Mud Horse Pictures / Hulu)

Gomez specializes in the cases of poor young men, usually black and Latino, who are subject to aggressive police practices and the Kafkaesque indignities of New York’s “Blindfold Law,” which permits prosecutors to withhold nearly all the evidence against defendants until the day their trial begins. “Conviction” focuses on the case of Pedro Hernandez, a Bronx teenager who was arrested in 2016 in a shooting during a street corner melee. Hernandez maintains his innocence — he insists he wasn’t anywhere near the site of the shooting — but bail is set at $250,000, and he spends more than a year in jail awaiting trial.

Into the breach swaggers Gomez, who is hired by the Hernandez family to root out the truth. “Conviction” chronicles the months the detective spends stalking the Morrisania neighborhood in the South Bronx, on a hunt for exculpatory evidence. He brings his crusade to the press, railing against police brutality and what he calls a “hornet’s nest of corruption” in the Bronx district attorney’s office.

Gomez is fascinating: charismatic, bombastic, indefatigable, with a gift of the gab that could power a dozen podcasts. (Gomez appears in Hulu’s “Crime + Punishment,” an award-winning Sundance documentary.) He wears double-breasted suits, professes love for Picasso and arrives at housing projects with the top dropped on his silver Corvette convertible, blasting Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” because, he says, it’s important to make an impression.

We follow Gomez on sleuthing missions to upstate prisons and accompany him on hours-long stakeouts in apartment building hallways, where he comes armed with an empty 2-liter Coke bottle in case he needs to relieve himself. (“One thing about my job: You gotta have a strong bladder.”) We learn about his past as an Army intelligence officer and his tenure in the NYPD, which ended badly and in part explains the fervor he brings to his battle with the cops. Gomez is both appealing and unnerving; as “Conviction” progresses, its portrayal of the private eye becomes more complicated, and the righteousness of his actions seem less certain.

I found my thoughts drifting back to the podcast’s opening moments. Is Gomez’s crusade based in the lofty ethical absolutes of his supposed favorite book, the Bible? Or do his machinations reflect the slipperier realpolitik of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of the War,” with its famous dictum, “All warfare is based on deception”?

Those questions, and the unfolding mystery of the Hernandez case, keep a listener hooked. But “Conviction” is not a straightforward procedural. It belongs to a podcast subgenre that includes the third season of “Serial” and USA Today’s “The City,” shows that focus on structural ills and racial inequities in urban America and the criminal justice system. Meticulously, soberly, “Conviction” exposes the toll of stop-and-frisk policing, the absurdities of the plea-bargain system, the brutal conditions faced by prisoners on New York’s Riker’s Island. The result is a melancholy piece of public service journalism that is far more disturbing than the grisly true crime serials clustered at the top of the podcast charts.

Pedro Hernandez awaiting trial at Rikers Island, as seen Stephen Maing's documentary "Crime + Punishment," a chronicle of the lives and struggles of black and Latino whistleblower cops, the young minorities they're pressured to arrest and an unforgettable private investigator.
Pedro Hernandez awaiting trial at Rikers Island, as seen Stephen Maing's documentary "Crime + Punishment," a chronicle of the lives and struggles of black and Latino whistleblower cops, the young minorities they're pressured to arrest and an unforgettable private investigator. (Mud Horse Pictures / Hulu)

But the strength of “Conviction” lies less in muckraking than in portraiture. The show leans heavily on the testimonials of its characters, from Gomez to Hernandez’s mother, Jessica Perez, to various bit players — Bronx teens hanging outside street corner bodegas, rumpled defense attorneys. These people inhabit a New York that rarely appears in the countless mass media depictions of the world’s most famous city. In their voices — meaty outer-borough accents tinged with world-weariness and humor — you hear individuals struggling to maintain their dignity in a system rigged to strip them bare.

Much of the credit for “Conviction” goes to Knafo, an investigative reporter who has written for the New York Times and other publications. His storytelling is smart, restrained and, in a gruff way, formal; the phony familiarity and twee interjections that mar so much podcast narration are nowhere to be heard in “Conviction.” The show is crisply produced by Meg Driscoll, Chris Neary and Saidu Tejan-Thomas. The music, by Haley Shaw, is moody and subdued, a good fit for a tale that shuns sensationalism and finds humanity and complexity in unexpected places.

“Conviction” so assiduously avoids clichés that it comes as a shock when, in the final episode, it suddenly turns formulaic, knotting its loose ends in a too-tidy bow. Knafo asks: “Which is [Manny Gomez]? A hero? Or a villain? I finally figured out the answer.”

But that answer will surprise no one, and what’s more, I don’t believe that Knafo “finally figured out” anything. Knafo himself is too shrewd a detective, too wise about human nobility and human failings, to spend his time pondering the banal question of heroism versus villainy. This framing is simply a concession to convention: the genre rule dictating that a narrative podcast must be a first-person quest-saga, which resolves with a whodunit solution and Big Thematic Takeaways spelled out in flashing lights.

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Earlier this year, Knafo published an article in the New York Times Magazine about Gomez and the Hernandez case, and that piece offered no such simple-minded denouement. In 2019, the podcast is a mature medium; audiences can abide the same subtlety in their earbuds that they encounter on the printed page. Besides, in “Conviction,” the words of the main characters strike such ringing cadences, resound with such authority, that there is no need for outside editorializing.

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“I feel like I was targeted for … growing up with the wrong people,” says Hernandez. “I didn’t deserve anything that happened to me.”

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