Calling from WHERE? Who can you trust in a world of scams?

My mobile phone started ringing, and a strange, long number flashed up: It was a call from Mumbai, India.

Since I didn’t know anyone from Mumbai and nor did I have any reason to expect a call from the Asian sub-continent, my immediate thought was: this has to be a scam call.

“Ha” I exclaimed as I watched the phone ring out. Then somewhat unexpectedly, the caller left a message on my voicemail. Still I didn’t think too much about it, and ignored that as well.

But then, as I returned to my laptop, a message popped up in my email.

It was from an employee at a data company I’d contacted after my login and password had stopped working on their website, which I use regularly as part of my job.

Based in Mumbai, he had rung me to try and sort out the problem I had.

I apologised for missing his call and asked him to please ring again.

When the Mumbai number came up a second time on my phone, I answered it and spoke to my email correspondent – a polite, softly-spoken man with a light Indian accent – who was doing his best to help me fix my problem. Which he did. A short while later I was able to log onto their website and get on with my work.

The incident though left me pondering about the strange ways our minds work and also how we navigate the world in which we live in.

As a survival mechanism in this digital age, we’ve learned to mistrust a lot of things: unexpected and unsolicited phone calls, emails and text messages that bombard us on an almost daily basis. We’re told: Don’t click on that link!

There is of course a good reason for being so suspicious. So many of these contacts are from criminals trying to steal our money, possessions and identity.

According to the Australian government’s Scamwatch website, Australians lost over $851 million to scams in 2020, a record amount.

This is not surprising. Scammers took advantage of the pandemic, including the fact that we were locked down at home and more reliant than ever on our smartphones, laptops and iPads for communication to steal from us through cunning digital means.

Not only that but a myriad Covid-19 specific scams have emerged that prey on our fears about catching the virus, ensuring we get tested and the urgency to get vaccinated.

“Last year, scam victims reported the biggest losses we have seen, but worse, we expect the real losses will be even higher, as many people don’t report these scams,” said Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.

In fairness to me, I had been primed to treat my Mumbai call with suspicion. In the past few weeks I had received a number of phone calls from a mysterious Sri Lankan number that could only I suspected have been a scam. I ignored and blocked these numbers.

According to Scamwatch, this scam works by people calling the number back, connecting to a premium rate number and losing a lot of money.

“If you call the number back, you may be put on hold, hear music playing or the scammer could try and chat with you. The scammer’s objective is to keep you on the line for as long as possible as your call will be charged at a premium rate,” Scamwatch warns.

Unlike my Mumbai call, there was no follow-up email from Colombo asking me when was a convenient time to call and so I am fairly confident I did the right thing.

Of course Smartphones, which we all never leave home without have put scammers in touch with there potential victims on an almost 24/7 basis, and they know it. Vigilance is required at all times!

Aside from my Sri Lankan friends, I’ve received calls with messages telling me I am being sued or that I owe the tax office a lot of money. I am told to call a number immediately. Then of course there are those countless quasi-scams from energy companies promising to cut my bills.

And what about the calls I get asking me to complete a short questionnaire as part of a Melbourne survey to see how people are coping with the pandemic? Is that a scam? I haven’t stuck around to find out.

My email inbox is also fill of scams, not all of them filtered into the Spam folder.

I regularly get emails telling me an Amazon subscription has been activated and I am about to debited a large amount of money unless I click on some link.

In a variation of this scam, I was emailed a message about a Norton Anti-virus program subscription that had been auto-renewed. In both cases – unless its a coincidence – the scammers had worked out I have an actual subscription to Amazon and that used to have a Norton Anti-virus program on my home computer, no doubt to add a ring of believability to their emails.

The Norton Anti-Virus scam I received via email

Mostly though, email scams are easy to pick out. Often the email address is something concocted on Gmail or Hotmail or there are spelling or grammatical mistakes or other silly errors.

But some scams are extremely sophisticated, one of which nearly caught out a family member who was in the process of transferring a large amount of money overseas.

Known as a payment redirection scam, it involves a scammer impersonating a business or its employees via email and requesting an upcoming payment be redirected to a fraudulent account.

A small error – the incorrect spelling of the word “direct” which was spelled “dirrect” in an email signature alerted my family and the legitimate company they were dealing with to the impending diversion of funds, which was thankfully unsuccessful, but only just in time.

As the Scamwatch figures show, many other people are not so lucky and are conned out of their money, even their houses and possessions, sometimes their life savings.

In some cases, people fall for scams because they are gullible, naïve or not very tech savvy. Sometimes its out of greed or desperation (Emails telling you have won a competition or inherited a large sum of money) or sometimes out of loneliness (as in online romance scams) and sometimes because they scam is very brilliant. We can only hope we don’t fall victim to one of those.

As to my Mumbai call centre caller, I can only apologise and say to him: Sorry mate, it’s the world we live in!

My father the serial killer: discovering the real Shannon O’Leary?

out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-panIt’s hard to write an honest review about ‘Out of the Fire and into the Pan’, the second memoir penned by the Australian actor, performer and songwriter Shannon O’Leary, without confessing that a large part of my motivation for reading it was finding out the identity of the author.

Shannon O’Leary is a pseudonym adopted at the request of her family.

Her first memoir, ‘The Blood on My Hands’ which I read and reviewed almost 3 years ago, dealt with the author’s horrific childhood, where she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father Patrick, a sadistic serial killer (never caught) whom the author witnessed murder young women on the rural outskirts of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.

Out of the Fire and into the Pan, which begins with the author’s move from Port Macquarie to the inner suburbs of Sydney aged 15, is the story of O’Leary’s bumpy journey through a string of failed relationships with damaged men to becoming a mother of five kids and entrepreneur. It also charts her eventful and ultimately successful career in the entertainment industry.

While I was curious from the start to know who O’Leary really is (not too many memoirs claim a serial killer for a father) the stimulus to try and solve this mystery actually came from O’Leary herself: her second memoir seemed packed full of clues about her real identity.

For instance, she writes that in 1977:

I was always busy acting. I had a guest spot on a well-known soap opera, appeared in some television commercials and gained some extra work on a few films

A footnote identifies the soap opera as ‘The Restless Years’ and so I spent a great deal of time trawling through the list of actors that appeared on the show, to try and work out which one was Shannon O’Leary.

When that proved fruitless, I tried Googling her work as a ‘reporter’ on popular television show from the early 1980s, and another, a childrens show, she said she appeared on called the Super Flying Fun Show.

Later in the memoir, she mentions a scandalous story about her that appeared in a gossip column when she was dating a much old British-born cinematographer called ‘Henry’ and again I dug around online looking for the article without any luck.

She also writes about her work on a 1980s ABC mini-series  where she agonised about having to appear topless in an embrace with a “young blond Shakespearean actor [who] was already a star in Britain”.

All these clues were enticing, but led me down rabbit holes and towards red herrings.

In the end, it was the return address on the back of the package which contained my review copy of her book which proved the most valuable clue. After a bit of digging and cross-referencing of property records, I discovered who she was and soon came across the concise Wikipedia page of the real Shannon O’Leary. I also found other stories about her and her family online.

While, I do not plan to reveal who Shannon O’Leary really is – that was never my intention – I can say that the information online corroborates the major biographical details shared in her memoirs – though unsurprisingly, there is no mention of her disturbing childhood or who her father was.

It was also nice to see a photo of Shannon O’Leary and learn a bit about her interesting family, in particurlar her kids, which have also been successful in the entertainment sphere.

As for her second memoir, it is worthy sequel to the harrowing story of her childhood, and also an enjoyable chronicle of what life was like in Australia for a young aspiring actor and entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second memoir, while not nearly as shocking as the first book, still includes graphic flashbacks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who continues to make sadistic appearances in her life, a hissing shadow of a man that refues to go away, and whose crimes went completely unpunished.

I heard him laugh and opened my eyes to see him pointing the gun at me. The shot cracked out, whizzing over my head making me jump and teeter on the branch.” I think you can stay there for hours,” Dad said, as he walked inside.

Thankfully O’Leary also  takes time, amid the many traumatic and sad episodes, to recount her successes, big and small along the way. Most pleasingly for the reader there is a sense of progress, of building towards something hopeful: a loving relationship, a happy family and a comfortable home in a NSW country town.

Despite her abusive childhood, O’Leary emerges as a victor, as someone who triumphs over the rotten hand dealt to her at the start of her life. That she survived at all is a wonder, even she struggles to fathom:’Why was I spared?’

If I am to make any sort of criticism of her memoir, it would be to say that the author sometimes says too much when less would be better.

But that is a very minor criticism. O’Leary is good story teller, blessed with the gift of objective self-reflection. All of her experiences are retold with a feeling of ardent authenticity. The key moments in her life, both good and bad, become her “stepping stones” towards a place of relative normality.

For O’Leary,  the act of writing and telling her incredible story, as painful as that must have been at times, is way for her to liberate herself from her past and to find healing.

“Letting people know about my childhood was like I’d experienced a coming out – a shedding of skin,” she writes towards the end of her second memoir. “By writing the book and with my father dying (in 2009), I had liberation from my past.”

‘Black territory’: the dark story of Sunbury’s asylum on the hill

IMG-2945In 1945, Maraquita Sargeant, a young teacher and concert pianist living in rural Victoria was admitted to a notorious lunatic asylum north of Melbourne.

Here she would remain for the next 22 years, incarcerated against her will and tragically, completely sane.

Years after her release in a more enlightened and less cruel age, psychiatrists would describe Maraquita as being nothing more then “mildly eccentric”.

Her ‘lunacy’ in 1945: not wanting to have any more children.

Her youngest child, Tony, who was only 18 months old when his mother was taken away, calls the now empty lunatic asylum “black territory”.

“This is a black place. I don’t want to be here,” he says in a short video about his mother produced by Washington’s famous Smithsonian Institute.

This “black territory” is a place I have only recently discovered for myself.

It’s only a 20 minutes drive from where I live and somewhere I pass almost every day on my train ride into work.

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Maraquita Sargeant (from the Smithsonian video)

For months I’d thought the majestic looking red-brick mansion rising above trees on a distant hillside was a country estate, perhaps built long ago for a Melbourne land baron.

It was only when I found myself standing outside its locked-up gates, staring up at the classically proportioned Victorian structure with its steep black roof, long-tall chimneys and large empty windows that its real purpose came into focus.

Known originally as the Sunbury Industrial School, the vast complex of mostly abandoned and decaying buildings was for over 100 years a lunatics asylum. It occupies almost the entire hillside of housing estate called Jacksons Hill.

In its most recent incarnation, until 2011, the asylum complex was a study campus occupied by Victoria University. Search online and you’ll find plenty of ghost stories.

More recently known as Caloola, the site’s history goes back over 150 years to 1864, when it became the site for one of Victoria’s  twelve ‘Industrial schools – institutionalised homes for delinquent or neglected children, that were a horror of diseases, death and discomfort in their own right.

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The ‘Hospital for the Insane’ or ‘Sunbury Asylum’ was built in 1879 and then expanded over the next 40-odd years into a complex of 20 separate buildings, including a psychiatric hospital.

Back then there would have been very little to see from the hillside apart from farmland and another famous Sunbury landmark, the grey-spired Rupertswood mansion – home of The Ashesgrey-spired Rupertswood mansion – home of The Ashes. Rupertswood was completed in 1876 and is now incorporated into a posh private school.

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Rupertswood: Home of The Ashes

While the building of a modern highway has made Sunbury an outlying suburb of Melbourne today, back in the 1870s, Caloola asylum inmates would have felt very isolated from the wealth and power of boom town Melbourne, then one of the richest cities in the world thanks to the Victorian Gold Rush.

This separation was of course deliberate – people considered ‘mad’ in those days like Maraquita Sargeant were locked up far away from the chattering middle-classes, often to be forgotten about or no longer mentioned (except in whispers) by their own families.

“Asylums were typically distant from population centres, with extensive grounds and ha ha walls to prevent escape,” the Victorian Heritage Database entry says of Caloola.

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This is black territory, a dark place of menace.

According to the VHD,  the purpose built Sunbury asylum with its “pavilion wards in brick with terra cotta roofing tiles conformed to international standards of asylum and hospital planning adopted in the later nineteenth century”.

“Caloola is of historical significance for its physical fabric and spaces which demonstrate nineteenth century attitudes to the treatment of mental illness, including the padded cells, ripple iron cells and dormitory accommodation.”

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An inmate of Sunbury asylum, in what appears to be a strait jacket

In the Smithsonian video, Tony Sargeant enters one of the claustrophobic former padded cells, the cushion lining peeling back from the wall like dead skin adding to the sense of horror. In another, he finds the large empty former linen room, where his mother spent her days monotonously patching up sheets and pillow cases.

“That was her big job in life. Even though she was a concert pianist,” Tony says.

Caloola remained a mental institution and training hospital until 1985 when it housed intellectually handicapped people.

From 1992 to 2011 it was a campus of Victorian University. Some of the building are still in use as a primary school, radio station, art gallery and theatre company.

For a while – after the university campus closed – a passionate local lady called Julie Mills and her husband ran popular two-hour guided tours of the asylum buildings providing insights into how the facility operated and how patients were treated at the time.

Ms Mills told the Sunbury Leader in November 2015 she wanted to shine a light on the mental health system in those days, and how it has changed, and tell the stories of some of the people treated, often harshly, within its walls.

“A lot of the Sunbury asylum history is about stigma and it is something that was buried in family histories,” she said.

Often people – many of them women – were placed into the asylum for conditions that today would be compassionately treated like post-natal depression,  or for just being drunk and disorderly.

In the case of Marquita Sargeant, she was denied her freedom – and later sent for a failed lobotomy at the Royal Melbourne Hospital – because a director at the asylum deemed her “a threat to certain prominent people’s reputations”.

I found countless other example of the cruelty, deviancy and filthy conditions that were part of asylum life for inmates, right up until the 1990s when the asylum housed mental patients, many of whom were abused or over-medicated.

A newspaper article that appeared in the Melbourne Argus in December 1881 reported on investigations into the lecherous behaviour of the asylum superintendent at the time Albert Baldwin, after he had a 17-year-old girl Agnes Simmonds visit him in his office, where he locked the door.

“The patient was alone with Mr Baldwin in his officer for some time,: testified William Walker, the asylum storekeeper and clear.

“Eventually she left with the attendant. Baldwin then called me in, and I found him in a flurried state. He pulled up the blind of his window, washed his hands and face and brushed his hair. The patient Simmonds left on the 5th September and I believe has gone to New South Wales.”

A feature article on Sunbury Asylum that appeared in The Age newspaper in 1999 talks of  Elizabeth Kennedy, 31, a suicidal dressmaker, who spent 7200 hours “in seclusion”, from 1894 to 1896 which meant she was forced to wear a camisole – the notorious straitjacket – and webbed trousers daily.

“A woman in seclusion also wore canvas gloves shaped like oven mitts.  Many of the inmates died of pneumonia and, in the early years, they were given cold baths. Difficult patients were deprived of dinner,” the article says.

Last May, Jackson’s Hill and asylum complex was acquired by the State Government’s Development Victoria.  However, plans to turn it into a community, arts and cultural precinct appear to have stalled.

Instead, it stands still and empty, a decaying and ghoulish Dickensian shrine to those who suffered unjustly and often terribly behind its walls.

As for my mistaken belief that this hillside of horrors was a majestic country estate, I can take some solace from a 1996 article in The Age newspaper, in which the writer described Caloola’s gardens, open-air pavilions, and curved ha-ha walls as having a “beauty that seems at odds with their original purpose”.

Is it OK, now, to like Lance Armstrong, even just a bit?

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In 2009, at the Tour Down Under

There are almost endless reasons to dislike Lance Armstrong, the former king of the Tour de France, once the greatest endurance sportsman in the world.

There’s the cheating, the lying (for years) about cheating, and the suing of those people like journalist David Walsh who (for years) rightly accused the Texan of cheating.

There’s also the manner of Armstrong’s cheating – an elaborate, carefully planned scam – and the damage he did to the reputation and integrity of cycling and the hurt he caused to his friends, family, co-workers and fans.

If that’s not enough, there is the fact that despite having to pay back millions in fines and penalties, he remains by all accounts exceedingly wealthy courtesy of his investments (funded from his cycling pay cheques) in funds that backed the likes of Uber.

Perhaps – most galling for some – is the fact that he appears to have put all the doping and cheating behind him, forgiven himself and moved on with his life. He has embarked on new business ventures and hosts podcasts, like The Move, about the Tour de France. In short he appears pretty content for someone whose fall from grace has in its Icarus-like plummeting – had no equal in the world of sport.

An unexpected reaction

But  a strange and unexpected thing happened to me when I listened to an interview Armstrong gave on the popular podcast, Freakonomics Radio: I found myself liking (just a little bit) the Lance Armstrong I heard during the course of his conversation with host Stephen Dubner.

I mentioned this to a friend, who was appalled.

For him there was no forgiveness. In essence, he said repeatedly, I had been duped by Armstrong who according to my friend had fooled me and others with his seemingly sincere words.

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Armstrong during his racing days

But I wasn’t the only one. The podcast host himself, Stephen Dubner (author of the best selling book Freakonomics) had an even stronger positive response that bordered – dare I say it – on admiration for the world’s most famous sports cheat.

Finishing his hour-long interview with Armstrong, Dubner said, without any trace of irony or sarcasm:  “Lance Armstrong, you’ve come a long way. It’s impressive.”

I emailed Dubner, told him how similarly I felt and my friend’s angry reaction. He replied:

“Yes, I heard quite a lot of the responses that you described. I tell people that I love living in a world where people are free to rabidly disagree about who/what they like, as long as they can stop short of violence.

No doubt many people (including my friend) “rabidly disagree” with my softened position on the disgraced cyclist.

In many people’s eyes what Lance Armstrong did is unforgivable and some would even go so far as to say he has not been punished enough.

Charismatic, candid and interesting

So what softened my opinion?

Well for one thing I found Armstrong to be a charismatic, candid and interesting interview subject.

I guess I was also charmed by the way he spoke; Armstrong has a propensity to include cycling metaphors into his speech:

“Life adjusts, the burn rate is taken down,” he says referring to the end of his sporting days, and with reference to the cycling union he says “it has no power, no stroke”.

Asked about the infamous Oprah Winfrey interview, Armstrong admits “it did not go well”.

“For cycling fans it was not enough and for the general public, it was too much,” he says quite eloquently.

He also admits that “he sued people and treated them badly” but that he has “travelled the world to sit down with people, to talk and to apologise”.

“I have tried to make amends and move forward,” Armstrong says.

How to fix cycling

I also thought he had a lot of good things to say, like how to fix the sport of professional cycling.

According to Armstrong there needs to be a strong cyclists union so that riders earn a fair cut from television revenues.

I was amazed to learn – I’m assuming its true – that the organiser of the Tour De France, ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) takes all the television rights revenue that come from the race, sharing nothing with those that compete.

Or to put in Armstrong’s vernacular: “[For riders] it starts with a zero, and ends with a zero.”

Armstrong believes a strong union could push for a fair cut of the Tour’s revenues, starting small and then negotiating a bigger amount over time.

Under the current system, he explained, a cycling team that loses its sponsor has nothing (apart from some bikes, gear and vehicles) at the end of the season, and this “creates the incentive to do what ever you can to succeed”.

But, if everyone is making money off TV revenue – regardless of if they come first or 20th – “then you would think and I truly believe athletes would self-police” Armstrong says.

Throughout the interview it seemed clear to me that Armstrong had changed a lot.

Nothing encapsulated this more than an incident Armstrong recounted to Dubner where he was heckled by former fans. It was in Denver the previous summer and Armstrong was about to catch an Uber taxi to a cycling event.

A guy at the bar got up and in Armstrong’s words: Started yelling “Fuck you” over and over again and would not stop. Soon the whole patio was chanting it and Armstrong was shaking.

“I thought to myself. I am Lance Armstrong. I have to do something,” he tells Dubner.

But rather than storm back into the bar and pick a fight, he phones the restaurant, gives the manager his credit card details and tells him to use it to pay for everyone’s meals and drinks.

It’s the only thing he could think of doing at the time, he says. “I get it,” Armstrong tells Dubner referring to the anger people still feel about him and how he let them down.

It’s anecdotes like this, that paint a picture of a guy who is not all bad.

Dubner also reminds us that for all his faults, Armstrong the cheat is also the guy who encouraged a generation of Americans – a country with a massive obesity problem – to get on a bike and do a bit of exercise.

He was also the guy, who founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, now called Livestrong, a charity which has raised tens of millions of dollars to support cancer sufferers.  Armstrong resigned as chairman in 2012 after the doping scandal, but the charity continues and has helped over 100,000 people battle the disease.

Let’s also not forget Lance Armstrong  defied the odds and beat an advanced stage of testicular cancer in a truly inspirational story

The truth is Lance Armstrong is a complex character, with shades of light and dark, good and bad.

Even the great racing commentator Phil Liggett, who knew Armstrong better than many of his fiercest armchair critics, admitted in an interview he gave to Brisbane’s Courier Mail in 2016 that he still had some affection for him:

 “…I find it extremely difficult to hate him because of the way I had seen him help cancer victims. And he was still the best rider of his era. I have always said drugs don’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred.”

 

The anonymous Casefile host: the mystery solved?

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Incredibly, a year has passed since I first blogged about the identity of the Casefile host, after which he blocked me on Twitter.

During that time I have also blogged on the topic of doxxing, written about my favourite true crime podcasts (republished in the Financial Review) and most recently I provided those curious Casefile fans with a guide to solving the identity of the Casefile host for themselves.

Of course the reason WHY he chooses to remain the anonymous host of a hit podcast is an entirely different and perplexing mystery – but I think I might have finally solved it.

The reason I hadn’t worked it out earlier (it was staring me in the face a year ago) was that I did not realise the host (Brad) has a different surname to his father.

The host’s late father was a chief inspector in the NSW police.

I think the anonymous host may be sensitive about this connection given the content of his show, or perhaps his family is.

In addition it also explains his interest in true crime and why he chose to make a podcast about it.

The police connection could actually run a lot deeper – the host himself might have been a policeman at one time.

How do I know this?

At the funeral for his late dad, the host’s mother said Brad intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer.

Whether he actually went on to become a policeman, I don’t know – but if it were the case, it would be another reason for his anonymity.

The police connection is certainly a more plausible explanation then the host just wanting to “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

Case solved?

PS. An interesting aside, someone told me there’s a rather amusing Facebook post floating around about the Casefile host. To find it, simply log on to Facebook and search for “Casefile host”. 

Serial, The Teacher’s Pet, Dirty John and Phoebe’s Fall: reviewing the best True Crime podcasts

The recent arrest of Chris Dawson charged with the murder of his former wife Lyn in 1982, not only re-opened Australia’s most famous cold case, but shone the spotlight on arguably the most successful of the podcast genres: true crime.

Indeed were it not for the investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet, written and narrated by The Australian journalist Hedley Thomas, the arrest of the former rugby league star nearly 38 years after his wife vanished from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, might never have happened.

Not only did the podcast re-open public interest in the case, but it also unearthed fresh evidence that helped the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions finally lay murder charges and pave the way for what may very well be the trial of the century, at least in Australia anyway, when it kicks off sometime in 2020.

Podcasts have certainly subverted the true crime genre, which had been dominated for decades by journalistic books, documentaries and movies.

For me, from my early twenties, it was true crime books that provided a way into the darkly fascinating minds of the criminally deranged.

I think this interest started with London’s Jack The Ripper (I read The Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow in about 1994 after going on Rumbelow’s grisly Whitechapel Tour), and then expanded into literary crime classics like 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy (about the London serial killer John Christie), Killing for Company by Brian Masters (about London necrophile Dennis Nilsen), The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule (about her former friend, the American serial killer Ted Bundy) and of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, plus many, many more.

(This interest was supported by my reading of Detective Crime fiction including many Ian Rankin novels featuring his beer loving Edinburgh detective John Rebus.)

This is undoubtedly a gross generalisation, but I still think a well-written true crime book stands head and shoulders above any podcast.

But I have also found myself drawn to this new form of true crime storytelling, which when done well offers a potent and highly addictive mix of entertainment, storytelling, investigation and information.

Having recently finished listening to The Teacher’s Pet (I enjoyed a pleasing email exchange with Hedley Thomas), and having listened to a whole bunch of them, this is how I would rank them from best to least favourite:

  1. Dirty John

dirty-john-crime-podcastProduced by the LA Times and written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, Dirty John is the most polished, thrilling, insightful and entertaining true crime podcast (actually any genre) I have listened to so far.  To briefly summarise the plot, it investigates a charming, but violent con-artist called John Neeham who wormed himself into the life of a wealthy but lonely Los Angeles interior designer, Debra Newell posing as a successful surgeon. The script is punchy, the story of love, deception, denial and cunning beautifully told, the cast of characters fascinating and the ending shocking . Best of all, Dirty John runs to just six intense episodes of between 36 and 47 minutes so there’s no unnecessary waffling. Every minute is filled with intrigue.  Such has been the success of Dirty John that it was made into a TV series starring Hollywood star Eric Bana while Christopher Goffard has gone on a world tour about the podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast more highly.

Rating: 5 stars

2. Serial (Season 1)

serial podcastMuch of the foundations for the success of True Crime podcasts is owed to the first season of Serial, which aired in 2014. The first blockbuster true crime podcast, Serial examined the 1999 Baltimore murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her football jock boyfriend Adnan Syed. The podcast was created and hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of This American Life, one of the most syndicated radio shows in the world. The Serial hosts interviewed the key people associated with the case (friends, witnesses, dodgy characters) and created plausible doubt regarding Syed’s conviction and helped win him a retrial. Koenig and Snyder are consummate story tellers and their passion for the case made it a hit. Season 2 of Serial was dreadfully boring (I didn’t even last one full episode) and the third season is apparently even worse. But the first season is among the best of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

3. Phoebe’s Fall

phoebe-s-fallWritten and narrated by The Age journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall investigated the perplexing 2010 death of 24-year-old Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute of a luxury apartment tower. Both Baker and Bachelard are renowned investigative journalists and they drew on all their experience to examine the circumstances of this bizarre and tragic case including whether it was even possible for someone to lower themselves into a narrow chute (the coroner ruled death by accident) and whether it was more likely Handsjuk was pushed. Apart from uncovering new evidence, Phoebe’s Fall is also extremely polished, yet also has a gonzo-style journalism feel to it as the hosts head out into the field to test out their theories. Each episode is as long as it needs to be and there’s no waffling on by the hosts.

Rating: 4 stars

4. The Teacher’s Pet

whooshkaa-podcast-imageReaders of this post may be surprised that I ranked The Teacher’s Pet below the other three given its huge global success (27 million or so downloads), the fact that it won the Gold Walkley, the most prestigious prize in Australian journalism and the heaps of new evidence it uncovered that led to the arrest recently of Chris Dawson, charged with the murder of his wife. Taken in its entirety, it is a brilliant investigation and deserves all the accolades it has received and I highly recommend it. But my biggest issue is its rambling nature and the lengthy episodes (some over 2 hours). There is far too much unnecessary stuff (pointless telephone conversations etc.) and I believe the podcast would have been even better with some severe editing. It felt like a bit of a marathon getting through it all especially the final few episodes, which for me took away some of its gloss and power.

Rating: 3.5 stars

5. Sword & Scale

sword and scaleThis bi-weekly American podcast is hugely popular, but suffers from a bombastic host (Mike Boudet) who has a tendency to sensationalize everything in an overly obvious attempt to keep listeners in suspense and who makes himself the star of the podcast rather than the cases themselves. The episodes are also overly long and unlike the aforementioned podcasts is not really an investigative show, but retells macabre and interesting cases. These criticism aside, it’s still a pretty entertaining podcast and well produced.

Rating: 3 stars

6. Casefile

casefileReaders of this blog will know my history with the anonymous (or not so anonymous) host of this Australian podcast, which has become a huge international hit.  Setting aside my own personal squabble, I’ve ranked Casefile at the bottom because it is not an investigative podcast in any real sense, but merely retells famous as well as more obscure true crime cases with a creepy voiced narrator and eerie ambient music. In my opinion the success of this podcast outweighs its content, which at times feels like nothing more than a reading out loud of a Wikipedia entry. No doubt millions of fans will disagree. Readers are better off reading a true crime book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

A note to readers: I would love to know of other true crime podcasts to listen to. Please send me your suggestions.

 

 

Reading a literary legal classic: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent

presumed-innocent_lI recently read Presumed Innocent the New York Times best-selling legal thriller written by Chicago lawyer-turned crime novelist Scott Turow.

It was published to both critical and commercial success in 1987 and then, three years later, made into a hugely successful Hollywood movie starring Harrison Ford and directed by Alan J. Pakula, after Sydney Pollack (the film’s producer) bought the movie rights for US$1 million.

Turow, who taught creative writing at Stanford University before obtaining a law degree from Harvard Law School, prosecuted high-profile corruption cases as a Chicago assistant US attorney before penning the tale of Rusty Sabich, a deputy chief prosecutor accused of murdering his co-worker, Carolyn Polhemus, with whom he had a brief, but intense affair.

For some reason I vividly recall watching a CNN profile of Scott Turow after Presumed Innocent became a major Hollywood film, and being fascinated by the fact that he penned most of the book in longhand in a spiral notebook while on the morning train into work.

I also recall seeing the movie at the cinema and enjoying the tale of murder, corruption and court-room battles in what was an above-average thriller elevated by the typically edgy and intense performance of Harrison Ford as the accused Rusty Sabich,  the cool cat-like performance of the late Raul Julia as Sabich’s suave legal defender Sandy Stern and the very spicy sex scenes involving Ford and the utterly gorgeous Greta Sacchi who played the fateful bombshell attorney Carolyn Polhemus.

And so, almost three decades after seeing the movie as a pimply 17- year old, I picked up Scott Turow’s novel on the recommendation of my wife, who had just read and raved about it.

It is a superbly crafted literary novel, certainly heads and shoulders above anything the likes of John Grisham might have penned and has not surprisingly drawn comparisons with the grand masters of crime writing like PD James and Ruth Rendell. In summary: Scott Turow can write!

As the author Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire) puts it so elegantly in her 1987 review of the book for the New York Times , Turow “transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice”.

She also remarks of his “immense writing talent” and “impressive legal experience”. These are both of in evidence from the very first page when readers are introduced to Rusty Sabich,  the chief deputy prosecuting attorney of fictional Kindle County, who is also – in a stroke of genius by Turow – the narrator of the story.

Opening statement
This how I always start: “I am the prosecutor. I represent the state. I am here to represent to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh this evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt…”

The novel begins with Sabich brooding over his affair with the beautiful Polhemus, who jilted him just before she was founded raped and murdered in her apartment.

The violent crime is the talk of Kindle County, casting a dark cloud over the re-election campaign of Sabich’s boss, the veteran chief prosecutor Raymond Horgan.

Sabich, who has kept his affair with Polhemus mostly a secret (he has tearfully confessed to his wife Barbara) is then put in charge of leading the investigation into her violent death, a task he attempts to carry out despite the obvious personal conflict.

MSDPRIN EC015

Close encounter: Greta Sacchi as Carolyn Polhemus, Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich

But events take a shocking turn for Sabich (who up until this point has been the reader’s insightful guide into the world of politics, big city crime, police investigations and legal procedure) when he is accused of Polhemus’s murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence and the suspicion of his affair, which gives him a motive.

Sabich hires top defence lawyer Sandy Stern to represent him, while his loyal cop pal, Dan “Lip” Liprazaner helps hunt down information on a secret case file that Polhemus handled and which might explain who killed her and why.

But can we trust Sabich? Yes, he has prosecuted child molesters and violent criminals, but he is also an adulterer and who seems both vulnerable and resentful of women. Did he murder Polhemus in a fit of uncontrollable, jealous rage?

 And then, when I’m by myself, I feel desperate and ashamed. This raging, mad obsession! Where is my world? I am departing. I am gone already.”

This clever plotline – faithfully replicated in the movie – is brought to life on the page by Turow’s carefully delineated characters – from the eloquent and morally ambiguous Sabich to his wounded and bittery resentful wife Barbara to the slippery prosecutor of his case, Nico Della Guardia – and pitch-perfect language to create the sinister undertones at play within the court and district attorney’s offices of Kindle County.

Turow takes his time delving into the biographies of his characters  – Sabich is the son of an unloving and cruel father who escaped the war in Europe – exploring their motivations, so they become living, breathing creations.

At the same time he manages to keep the story and plot moving along so you never feel you’re just turning pages hoping to get to the next important courtroom battle or clue, but immersing yourself in the drama. Everything said and done by Sabich and the cast of lawyers, police officers and members of the court has meaning and relevance to the story.

Turow also makes full-use of his legal experience to create terrifically authentic courtroom exchanges between the defence and prosecuting teams as the scales of justice tip for and against Sabich’s ‘presumed innocence’.

In summary, it’s not hard to understand why Presumed Innocent became a publishing phenomenon in 1987 and why it launched Turow’s writing career (more than 30 million copies of his books have been sold).

time cover turowIn 1990, when the movie of Presumed Innocent came out Time magazine featured Scott Turow on its June 11 cover calling him  ‘the bard of the litigious age’. (It’s also become a popular crossword clue!)

He was then the 92nd writer to make it onto the cover,  joined the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Alex Haley.

The great thing about Presumed Innocent is that it never descends to the status of an “airport paperback thriller.

While its undoubtedly a page-turner, it is squarely a work of literary fiction, spiced up with a film-noir plot, a femme fatale straight out of a 1930s Raymond Chandler crime novel and writing that some have called “Dickensian”

Even if you have seen the movie (or remember the controversial twist at the end), I highly recommend reading the book, which has rightly retained its much-revered status in the crime fiction genre.

Interviewed by CBS News in 2010 after publishing a sequel called Innocence, Turow said:

“‘Presumed Innocent’ changed my life and I went from being a guy writing on the morning commuter train – and I finished the book in an unfinished basement in my house in Wilmette – I went from that to somebody who was a best-selling author around the world.”

Blocked on Twitter: A few thoughts on the “Anonymous host” of Casefile

casey This week I discovered I had been blocked on Twitter from accessing any tweets from @case_file and @casefilehost – the handles for popular crime podcast Casefile.

Fans of this blog may recall I wrote a now deleted post a few months back revealing the identity of the show’s anonymous host.

What followed was frantic messaging via Twitter from the “anonymous host” asking me to remove the post as revealing his identity would comprise the show and could bring about its early end.

This I agreed to do in modest exchange for an interview (anonymously) with “Brad” (He revealed his name in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine).

I took down my original post as he had asked, emailed him some interesting questions – but no responses were forthcoming.

Instead a rather blunt email followed over a week later suggesting that my follow-up post (which did not reveal his identity) was also not to his liking and when I declined to acquiesce to his demands to change it, our correspondence ended.

email-casefile

A short while later, he blocked me on Twitter, meaning I cannot view any Casefile tweets or interact with him – though I can still download his show.

I have also discovered that ‘Brad’ had removed all photos on social media of himself and other bits of identifiable information scattered on the internet in clear efforts to protect his anonymity.(That said, he can still be easily found if you know where to look).

(For top tips on how to work out his identity for yourself, read my follow-up blog here).

Clearly, ‘Brad’ is very keen to remain anonymous and – for reasons that no one appears to know, but many are curious about ( I get emails every week) – shuns the quasi celebrity status that other successful podcasters have enjoyed.

It of course begs the question, why? What does he have to hide?

With no responses to my questions from Brad, all I can do for now (until the mystery is inevitably solved) is speculate on plausible explanation for his overt shyness.

Perhaps the host of Casefile is a former or current police or law enforcement officer? Or perhaps he has served in the army or worked for one of those secretive government agencies?

Is it too fanciful to suggest that maybe he has some dark and dastardly secrets of his own?

The other possibility I think is that being anonymous protects him to a degree from being sued or attacked personally.

This I pondered after finding out that one Casefile episode, case 55 – the unsolved 2005 murder of Perth backpacker Simone Strobel – is no longer downloadable anywhere.

strobel

So why has it disappeared? Has someone complained?

In our exchanges the Casefile host said there was nothing “sinister” about his anonymity, but equally his other explanations (told in many online interviews) that he wants to stay out of the way of the story do not ring true.

I also wonder how ‘Brad’ feels at retelling these crimes in all their graphic detail, where the victims (some of whom are still alive) are not afforded the luxury of anonymity…while he so jealously guards his.

The identity of the Casefile host: why I deleted his dark secret

caseyOne of the most stunning podcast success stories in recent years, is Casefile, a true crime podcast started just over two years ago by a mystery Australian bloke “from a spare room in his house”.

(For a follow up on this post click here).

Narrated anonymously, his distinctive Australian drawl has added an element of creepiness to tales drenched in blood. Every week hundreds of thousands of listeners, indeed sometimes many millions, download or stream the latest Casefile podcast.

With this viral success, the podcast has quickly become a slick, commercial venture with advertising, a creepy soundtrack and professional production qualities.

A team of engineers, producers, composers and researchers have sprung up around the Casefile creator and host.

But his identity – like the perpetrators of the unsolved crimes retold on the podcast – remains a closely guarded secret.

In an interview with Vice.com in October 2016, the Casefile host said he wanted to remain anonymous so that he could “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

“I’m just a random Aussie guy, in my spare bedroom, running a podcast,” he said modestly.

As a naturally curious journalist, I decided to take up the challenge and try to found out who the Casefile host was.

It wasn’t really hard – if you know where to look.

(For top tips on how to work out his identity, read my follow-up blog here).(For top tips on how to work out his identity, read my follow-up blog here).

Indeed, for someone who wanted to remain anonymous, he didn’t seem to be making much of an effort to hide his identity.

And so last week, I ran a story, briefly, on this blog revealing his identity.

If you were one of the 100 or so people who read the post, you would know who he is and would have seen his photograph.

Soon after it was published and Tweeted and Facebooked, the Casefile host contacted me and asked me not to reveal his identity and to remove the post and all my social media about it.

casefile tweet

I was bemused by his reaction, as I thought his anonymity was a “marketing gimmick” and that it if a blogger like me revealed it would not make any difference to the show or how it is presented.  Indeed many of his fans crave to know who he is.

But no, he told me, it had nothing to do with marketing but affected his “real world life”  and his “ability to do the show”.

casefile tweet 2

In the end I took it down.

He told me that if no damage had been done to his anonymity and the show could continue, he would consider doing an interview with me.

I’ve sent over a few thought-provoking questions…let’s see what happens.

Of course, I remain intrigued as to why his anonymity is so vital to the show’s viability. No other podcasts I know of has anonymous narrators.

In fact, most successful podcast creators, like the hosts of the ground breaking Serial have become famous in their own right.

And so while the Casefile host insists on not making his identity part of the murderous stories he tells,  for me, his identity has, ironically, become the story.

As, I think it always has been for many of his faithful listeners.

(For a follow up on this post click here).

Meeting Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse

dexter_-_the_wench_is_deadIt’s impossible for me to think of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter‘s fictional middle-aged Oxford detective, with a penchant for booze, attractive but dangerous women and classical music, and not think of the late, great John Thaw, who played him so brilliantly in the acclaimed BBC television series.

And so it was John Thaw’s face – penetrating stare, roman nose and white mop of hair – that became Morse in my head as I sat down to read The Wench is Dead.

It’s an unusual introduction to the literary  Morse – nearly all of the detective action takes place from Morse’s hospital bed, where he lies recuperating from a burst ulcer.

The case too is unusual, to say the least, involving the murder in 1859 of a married woman called Joanna Franks who is found drowned in the Oxford Canal whilst travelling to meet her husband in London. Two of the drunken and lustful boatmen are found guilt of killing her and executed, while a third is shipped off to Australia following a last-minute pardon.

But something does not gel for Morse, who reads about the case in a small booklet given to him in hospital. Bored and harassed by the nursing staff, he sets his great mind to work to solve the ancient crime, aided by his dutiful sidekick, Detective Lewis.

It’s wonderful writing full of Morse’s wit, humour and great intellect with Dexter skillfully shifting the story between the murky waters of the Oxford Canal in 1859, as the boat carrying Joanna Frank takes her to her doom and Morse propped up in his hospital bed pondering the possibilities:

The thought of drink had begun to concentrate Morse’s mind powerfully, and with great circumspection and care, Morse poured a finger of Scotch into his bedside glass, with the same amount of plain water. Wonderful!. Pity that no one would ever believe his protestations that Scotch was a necessary stimulant to his brain cells! For after a few minutes his mind was flooding with ideas – exciting ideas! – and furthermore he realised that he could begin to test one or two of his hypotheses that very evening.

The Wench is Dead, published in 1986 was the eighth out of 13 Inspector Morse books that Colin Dexter, a former grammar school teacher, wrote over a period of more than 25 years.

john-thaw

The late John Thaw as Inspector Morse

Dexter came up with idea of Morse in 1972 while sitting at the kitchen one rainy day on a family holiday in Wales with nothing to do. He recounted this is in an interview with strandmag.com:

I went in the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing. There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them; I can’t remember what it was. I didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well. I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but gradually a few ideas materialized.

Later on, in the same interview he talks about the traits he shared with Inspector Morse, these being: a love of classical music, especially Wagner, sensitivity to the arts, music and literature, the enjoyment of alcohol, particularly single malt Scotch and real ale, “a bit too much” and a confession to being a bit of pessimist “with not much faith in the future of the planet”.

Of those traits Dexter says he did not share with Morse were Morse’s incredible mental capacity for crime solving, Morse’s fondness for attractive but deadly women and his perennial bachelor status  (Dexter was married and had children) and Morse’s meanness with money.

All of these traits make up the wonderfully complex character of Inspector Morse, who is surely one of the finest fictional detectives in modern literature ranking right up their with Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennyson and modern greats like Luther.

Morse’s great powers of problem solving are in full display in the The Wench is Dead, a brilliant ‘whoddunnit’ cold case  that is short enough to be enjoyed on a rainy afternoon, perhaps with a decent glass of Scotch and classical music – possibly Wagner – playing in the background.