On Pamela Colloff’s “A Bend in the River” (Texas Monthly, July 2002)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: A popular cheerleader is found murdered in a river in the small, 2,000-person town of Waurika, Okla.—a sleepy town with no other offerings of teenage entertainment except wild partying. This is the story of the hunt to find the 17-year-old’s murderer and his accomplices.

Note: In this review, I can cheat a bit: Pamela Colloff was gracious enough to sit down with me during a Q&A session and also to sit down with the other Texas Monthly interns and I to talk shop about “The Innocent Man.” (You can read those conversations here.) She shared some of her go-to writing tactics, and (other than “The Innocent Man,” of course) “A Bend in the River” is a prime example of those tactics.

Before anything, know that, because of how the story’s crafted, this post will be a complete spoiler of not just the ending of the story, but the whole story, so you may want to read it first. Colloff designed this story so that it gives minimal hints about what happens next, but reveals just enough details in each section to cause maximal suspense and curiosity (and I’d hate to ruin that effect for you: hence the warning.)

The only information Colloff reveals from the start is that a girl, Heather Rich, was murdered and found in the river. Her first section is shallow in its explanation for this horrific crime—a reflection of how the town felt about it after it happened: clueless. Colloff presents the fanciful rumors that spread, none of which give any hints to what actually happened. She explains how popular and pretty Heather Rich was, which is what many people only knew of her and which is what made it harder for them to realize just how far Heather had drifted.

After the story cleverly begins during the town’s most confused point in time, Colloff transitions into the long answer that is key to every murder story: What led to this? Which requires the extensive background on main characters and places. Colloff starts off with Waurika and what kind of town it was from the perspective of most parents—without revealing the drug culture, of which Heather took part, since many parents were unaware of it until further into the investigation.

But background on Heather, who was first introduced as a pretty cheerleader, isn’t nearly as sleepy as the town. Colloff soon introduces us, through her mini-narrative on Heather growing up, to the party lifestyle of teenagers in Waurika—and she uses Heather’s meth head ex-boyfriend, Randy, as a vehicle to understanding this lifestyle. Throughout all of her description of Heather and Randy’s relationship and what he remembers Heather doing for fun, Colloff gives no indication that Randy is actually an accomplice in her murder.

The strategic withholding of information in this story is the major reason it’s impossible to put down. Readers only know as much as Heather’s parents during their unrelenting search for their daughter’s killer. Heather’s mother, Gail, makes calls to some people she suspects may have seen Heather on the night she was killed, but Colloff gives no special treatment (i.e.: hinting at their capacity to kill) to the boys—Randy, Josh Bagwell, and the shooter, Curtis Gambill—who did the crime until much later in the narrative.

Also notice that, when Colloff does return in the course of the narrative to the point when Gail and her husband learn the news of their daughter’s body in the river, Colloff doesn’t dramatize any more than a quote from Gail, since she already exposed the news in the lead. Instead of ending this particular section with a melodramatic statement like, “They knew Heather was gone forever,” she ends with Randy’s reaction:

Randy was at school, standing at a water fountain, when he heard the news that Heather’s body had been found. “It was like time stopped,” he says. That night he was crowned Waurika High School’s homecoming king. During the halftime ceremony, he looked haunted under the glare of the stadium lights.

And of course we don’t know if he looks haunted because of sadness over her death or guilt over knowing of her murder.

Crafting the story in this way makes the payoff so much more fulfilling when we are finally able to piece together all the elements that were previously presented in their normal context—a skill of Colloff’s particularly effective in “The Innocent Man” as well.

A last note: The story being titled “A Bend in the River,” Colloff of course intertwines small descriptions and anecdotes from interviewees about this river throughout the piece, one of which she brilliantly chooses to close with. Easily a must-read—regardless of if I spoiled it for you.