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Halloween is a time when people are moved to indulge what spooks and chills them most – and the genre of true crime offers a built-in way to address lingering fears. Seven years after the first season of Serial popularized – and all but invented – the true crime podcast, the medium is at another inflection point. Listeners are asking tough questions about what, and especially who, true crime prioritizes, whose stories remain untold, and which issues are shamefully under-reported and discussed. These five podcasts stand out for great storytelling, yes – but more so for digging deep into broken systems and how they create lasting harm and trauma.
Stolen: The Search for Jermain (Gimlet Media, hosted by Connie Walker)
Connie Walker was an exemplary investigative reporter and producer at CBC when she embarked on her first podcast project, Missing and Murdered. Its second season, Finding Cleo, which focused on the life and disappearance of Cleo Semaganis and the ripple effects of the Sixties Scoop, is one of the best true crime podcasts, period, and deservedly made Walker a beloved figure.
Walker has now moved to a new production company (Gimlet Media) across the border, but with Stolen, keeps her focus laser-sharp on the oft-overlooked plight of Indigenous women and girls, the alarming frequency with which they are subject to violence, abuse and murder by their intimate partners, and the indifference – sometimes calculated, more often casual – from society and government. Over eight episodes (plus a bonus key update), Stolen recounts the June 2018 vanishing of Jermain Charlo in Missoula, Mont., the lasting effects upon her family and community, and the frustratingly slow (yet surprisingly candid) investigation, with boundless empathy and humanity.
Through the Cracks (WAMU, hosted by Jonquilyn Hill)
The gold standard for true crime podcasts remains In the Dark, the investigative series hosted by Minnesota journalist Madeleine Baran, whose second season helped free Curtis Flowers from Mississippi’s death row. For those (like me) who await the next season, a new series, Through the Cracks, proves itself a worthy successor and standout in its own right. WAMU reporter Jonquilyn Hill turns her attention to the 2014 disappearance of Relisha Rudd, a Black eight-year-old girl whose bright and vibrant voice we hear at the outset of the opening episode, immediately drawing the listener in.
Hill and her team, admirably, spend as much time on Relisha’s life and her family as they do on the overlapping and intergenerational traumas of their lives – eviction, violence, separation, homelessness – and on the cascading failures that allowed 18 days to pass before a single person at the shelter, at her school, and within her family noticed. Hill narrates with the benefit of journalistic seasoning and an open, questioning heart. She admits she’d have liked to solve the case, but highlighting the larger systemic issues was even more important. Relisha, and this podcast, will be in my thoughts for a long time, and is a model for future investigative podcasts.
Suspect (Wondery/Campside Media, hosted by Matthew Shaer)
This is the most traditionally structured true crime podcast on the list, which is in no way a criticism – the storytelling is top-notch, the investigative reporting is superlative, and the issues that Shaer and producer/reporters Eric Benson and Natalia Winkelman delve into are treated with maximum care and, when necessary, appropriate skepticism. (There’s also a surprise celebrity cameo, too.) The heart of the story is the 2008 murder of Arpana Jinaga hours after co-hosting a Halloween party. Finding justice will be bumpy and involve credulous interrogations, the wrongful conviction of the only Black man at the party, and the ways in which DNA testing can be upended by human error. Over nine episodes, Suspect conveys how the pursuit of justice can go so wrong, so many times, and that the lack of resolution is an indictment of the system.
Do You Know Mordechai? (UCP Productions, hosted by Kathleen Goldhar)
I knew I would love this podcast within minutes of the first episode, when Kathleen Goldhar shares the unusual connection she has with Arya, one of the victims of a con man calling himself Mordechai Horowitz – both women were (at different times) married to the same man, and became friends thereafter. This connection helps explain Goldhar’s interest in the story and the doggedness with which she investigates the levels of Mordechai’s grifting, which targeted vulnerable women from whom he could siphon money, but mostly spin wild, untrue yarns about his life.
Goldhar is an exceptional journalist – her interview of Mordechai (really Mark) yields plenty of revelations, especially in what he doesn’t say – whose reporting always centres the women, the harm done to them, and the lasting damage from trusting a man with their hearts who was intent on destroying them.
Love is a Crime (C13 Originals/Vanity Fair, hosted by Karina Longworth & Vanessa Hope)
I’m a longtime listener to co-host Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, which on occasion sneaks in true crime stories (like the Manson Murders, or Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten’s violent end) into the mix of retelling stories from Hollywood’s opening century. So when I heard that Longworth was teaming up with documentary filmmaker Vanessa Hope on a podcast about Hope’s grandparents, film noir femme fatale Joan Bennett and producer Walter Wanger, and the shocking 1951 shooting that tore their marriage apart and scandalized Hollywood in turn, I was pretty well sold.
The result, over 10 expertly crafted episodes, is equal parts delicious confection, sparkling writing, and tender reflection (particularly by Hope) on the double standard that kept women’s ambitions firmly rooted to their mates, and disproportionately punished their behaviour. Top marks, too, for the voice casting, with Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Wanger and Zooey Deschanel (New Girl) as Bennett, plus other special guests. Love is a Crime is a dishy delight backboned by pathos.
Sarah Weinman is the editor of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit & Obsession and the author of The Real Lolita. Her next book, Scoundrel, will be published by Knopf Canada in February.