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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Podcasts for train journeys: 10 to get you started

Vlocity_train_at_little_river_victoriaA new, hour–long, daily commute by train into work (Gisborne to Southern Cross) has suprisingly quelled my reading habits and instead created a new obsession: Podcasts.

Where I thought I would have my head buried in a book as the rugged Victorian countryside rolled by,  I have instead been listening to a variety of audio tales spanning  true crime, politics, everyday life, pyschology and science, celebrity lives, music and comedy.

I’ve been using the Stitcher app which is great because its very user-friendly and you can download podcast espisodes onto your phone to listen offline so I don’t have to use any of my data or rely on mobile connections (this is particurlarly handy for country train rides where mobile signal disappear into black holes).

Much has been written about how Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and others have changed television forever with all their brilliantly original shows and on-demand binge viewing, I reckon Podcasts are changing radio broadcasting in the same way.

In fact I hardly listen to live radio any more and haven’t watched live television in months.

I have listened to Podcasts before – namely the groundbreaking Guardian Unlimited Ricky Gervais Show and the first brilliant season of crime investigation Serial – but this is the first time I have truly binged on the podcast medium.

Given there are literally thousands of podcasts (and many are downright mediocre or terrible), here are 10 I reckon are worth giving a try, mostly based on recommendations from my podcast-addicted friend Jonny L.

Casefile

My first introduction to the Australian true crime podcast ‘Casefile was the story,  told in three parts, of the notorious ‘Jonestown’ massacre involving the narcissistic Reverend Jim Jones. I followed this up with the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels serial murders in Snowtown, South Australia in the late 1990s which revealed human behaviour at its most depraved.

Each grizzly story is told in graphic detail by an unnamed (and yet to be identified) Australian narrator with a chilling, deadpan voice. Each episode is brilliantly researched, taking you right inside the criminal mind. The podcast, which according to a Vice interview came about when the anonymous creator was stuck in hospital and bored, has become an international sensation with something like 200,000+ downloads per episode.

Sword and Scale

I followed up a couple of Casefile stories with another true crime American podcast ‘Sword and Scale’ with a disturbing episode about childhood sexual abuse and then an episode about Donna Scrivo who killed and dismembered her own son, Ramsay.

Narrated by the disquieting Mike Boudet, Sword and Scale has more of an investigative feel blending a retelling of events with exclusive interviews, courtroom recording and radio and television broadcasts. The podcasts keep listeners guessing, only revealing certains bits of crucial information towards the end.

Desert Island Discs

In need of some light relief, I tuned into the BBC’s famous music series Desert Island Discs (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, John McEnroe, Hugh Bonneville and Mark Rylance to date) where celebrities talk to Kirsty Young about their lives and the eight songs they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. This is actually a radio show that has been condensed into podcast format. Each are about 40 minutes long.

Here’s The Thing

Next on the menu was Alec Baldwin’s New York podcast “Here’s The Thing'” where the 30 Rock star interviews actors, musicians, politicians and other people he admires (Edie Falco, John Turturro, Dustin Hoffma, William Friedkin, Bernie Sanders, Sandra Bernhardt, Anthony Weiner and Mickey Rourke) about what inspires them, the turning points in their lives and the people and events that shaped them. It’s great because Baldwin loves and admires his interview subjects and is genuinely interested in their lives. Plus he has the perfect voice for radio: smooth and mellow, and he doesn’t take himself to seriously. (My personal favourite so far, the director William Friedkin who made The Exorcist and The French Connection).

The Moth Radio Hour

I confess I have only listened to one episode so far, but it was brilliant. The format of the show, which has been around for years, is to have a theme and then to feature real stories told live in front of an audience. The theme I listened to was Me, Myself, and I: Stories of Questioned Identity which included a great story by the writer and journalist Jon Ronson about a Twitter spambot that stole his identity. The three other stories in the podcast, including the dating adventures of a Manhattan Mormon comic, were all wonderfully engaging, funny, charming and thought-provoking.

On Point

On Point is podcast by the always reliably good National Public Radio (NPR) syndication network examining major issues dominating the American news cycle. Hosted by Tom Ashbrook, the former foreign editor of the Boston Globe, the show invites top journalists and bloggers who are experts on the chosen topic – be it the Harvey Weinstein scandal or the #Takeaknee NFL protest – to present their view-point and debate among each other. Generally panelists include people across the political spectrum which adds to its appeal.

Phoebe’s Fall (On iTunes not Stitcher)

Phoebe’s Fall is a special investigation by The Age newspaper into the bizarre, tragic and unexplained death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjunk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage shoot in one of Melbourne’s most exclusive apartment towers.  Presented over six episodes by investigative journalists Michael Bachalard and Richard Baker, it looks at all the key aspects of the baffling case, which seems to defy the ruling of the Coronial Inquest; that Phoebe died by misadventure. It includes interviews with Phoebe’s family, retired detectives and legal experts pulled together with an enjoyable discussion and debate between the two journalists about the key aspects of the case. It’s unmissable for podcast addicts.

This American Life

Presented by one of American radio’s most distinctive voices, Ira Glass, This American Life is one of the most listened to radio shows and podcasts in America. Each weekly episode (broadcast across 500 radio stations) exploring a different theme or topic with great nuance and insight whether it be “The Perils of Intimacy” (about relationships), or “Expect Delays” (about the banal perils of travel and journeys) or more serious topics like the rise of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism. The show is legendary and deserves its status.

Hidden Brain

Also an NPR broadcast, Hidden Brain is a science-based podcast about how we experience the world. Episodes that I have listen to look at the phenomenon of Nostalgia and Regret. The latest episode is on unpredictable behaviour. It’s presented by the highly articulate Shankar Vedantam, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist.

These are just a few suggestions from a novice Podcast listener. If you have any suggestions of your own, send me an email (freshlyworded@gmail.com).

In particular I am keen on finding a good comedy podcast. I’ve not had much luck so far.