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.

 

 

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Serial killers: a reading list for the obssessed (or uninitiated)

jack the ripperIn 1997, I went on the famous Jack the Ripper walk through the East End of London, visiting all the spots where he had committed his grizzly Victorian-era murders. The tour ended at the Ten Bells pub in Whitechapel, where two of  ‘Jack’s’ victims – prostitutes Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly – were said to have regularly frequented.

Our guide on the night was Donald Rumbelow, one of dozens of writers who had theorised about who Jack the Ripper might have been. I remember I bought a copy of his book after the tour and devoured it in a hurry.

At the time and throughout my twenties, I had perhaps an unhealthy interest in these evil monsters, reading book after a book, utterly fascinated and repelled in equal measure.

I had and still do have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, particularly when the crimes are committed by seemingly ‘ordinary people’.  But doesn’t everyone?

Recently, it was revealed that testing of DNA on a shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – was a 100 per cent match for the sister of a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, a suspect in almost any reputable book about the crimes. This, it seems has dealt a body blow to 120 plus years of speculation and intrigue and an industry of ‘Ripperologists‘ comprising amateur sleuths and published writers.

zodiacThis re-ignited my interest in the subject of serial killers, which had already been stirred by a book I came across in Big W of all places.

I was intrigued by the cover and its title: “The Most Dangerous Animal of All – Searching for my father…and finding the Zodiac Killer.” by Gary L. Stewart.

I have not read it yet – I am still making my way through, of all things a comic novel by Howard Jacobson called “The Making of Henry  – but it’s next on my reading list.

On the back cover it says tantalizingly:

An explosive, revelatory memoir of a man who discovers that his father is one of the most infamous and still-wanted serial killers in America.

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer – who murdered seven or more people in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was never caught. In another similarity, the Zodiac Killer also sent cryptic notes to the police, one in which he stated that man “is the most dangerous animal of all”.

There were numerous books written about the Zodiac killer and a very good 2007 film called “Zodiac” directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal,  Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo.

If this Zodiac book is as convincing as the back cover claims, than that would be two famous serial killer mysteries solved. Never mind, countless others remain as does the question: who or what makes these monsters?

Here’s my list of six of the best books I’ve read about serial killers:

1. Written in Blood by Colin Wilson
This is actually a book about forensic science, but within its dense pages are countless tales of serial killers including Bela Kiss, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Albert Fish to name just three plus insights into their psychological make-up and motives. Wilson, a prolific writer on crime, the occult, philosophy and countless other topics sadly passed away last year.  “Will enthrall connoisseurs of violent crime”- is on the cover of my well-thumbed paperback edition.

2. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The most chilling and fascinating book every written about a serial killer. Ann Rule was a friend of  the charming, well educated and good looking Ted Bundy, only later to discover to her huge shock and revulsion that he was a vicious serial killer.

3.  Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
The story about one of the most infamous murderers in British history, John Christie, and the wrongful arrest and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans. Made into a brilliant, hugely disturbing film starring the late Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 1971.

A poster for the movie "Ten Rillington Place" starring Richard Attenborough

A poster for the movie “Ten Rillington Place” starring Richard Attenborough

4. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Noted crime writer Brian Masters tell the story of Londoner Dennis Nilsen, who brutally murdered 15 men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kept them as companions and then later buried them under his floor or dismembered them and flushed them down the plumbing. What haunted me was that he had lived close to a cousin of mine in Muswell Hill, North London.

5. Lust Killer by Ann Rule
The story of Jerry Brudos, a married man with children in Portland, Oregon, who kidnapped, murdered and violated women in the workshop of his family home in 1968 and 1969. His wife had no clue.

death in belmont6. A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
Written by the author of “The Perfect Storm” it tells the story of Albert DeSalvo who by an incredible coincidence worked on a construction job in Junger’s family home in the early 1960s and who later confessed to being the “The Boston Strangler”. Junger theorises that DeSalvo was also the murderer of an elderly woman in the neighbourhood, not a black man called Roy Smith, who was jailed for life for the crime. Deeply disturbing, the book has on its front cover a photo of DeSalvo posing in a family photo with the author as an infant.