I have three words for you: Murder. Mystery. Party. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Done correctly, it should be a completely immersive experience: part performance and part puzzle, with costumes to wear, props to brandish, and evidence to examine. Everyone’s a detective and everyone’s a suspect. You can’t afford to be tardy to this kind of party because you might miss the clue that would’ve helped you solve the case or the cue for you to interact with your fellow guests in a pre-planned scene.
Fake crime can certainly be entertaining. So can true crime.
You probably wouldn’t think that a party would be an opportune time to discuss true crime, but that’s how the hosts of the podcast My Favorite Murder met—they were both attending a mutual friend’s party when one of them started describing a particularly gory car accident she had happened upon years ago. While most of the guests were disgusted, the other woman was completely mesmerized by the description and insisted on hearing every last detail. The seeds of friendship that were planted right then and there have since grown into the highly successful “true crime comedy podcast” I’ve loved from the moment I first listened to it.
I was tardy to that party by a few months.
But that wasn’t my first podcast. In fact, it wasn’t even my first true crime podcast, believe it or not. That honor belongs to season one of Serial, about the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the (possibly wrongful) conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. Again, I was tardy to this party, but not by much. I’d read about it somewhere (Entertainment Weekly, maybe? I suspect that’s how I also happened upon My Favorite Murder) and thought it sounded like it was right up my ally. Seasons one and three certainly were, though I couldn’t get into season two despite my best efforts, and I look forward to season four with great anticipation.
Somewhere in there I stumbled across Criminal, possibly thanks to a recommendation from my girls at My Favorite Murder. In this case, I can’t make the claim that it was love at first listen, as it was with the other two podcasts. I mean, I thought it was interesting enough that I was willing to give it a chance, but it didn’t knock my socks off. Consequently, I did listen to at least a few episodes before giving up on it for some random reason I can no longer recall. Were there a couple of not-so-great episodes that left me underwhelmed and wondering why I was wasting my time on it? Could I have put off listening to new episodes for so long that I couldn’t bring myself to pick it back up? Did I somehow forget about it?
Who knows? Definitely not me. I haven’t the foggiest idea.
And though Criminal remained in my library, it got to the point that my phone neither downloaded nor provided me with notifications of new episodes, placing it squarely in podcast purgatory.
It was only when my car radio experienced a complete meltdown that I accidentally came across the nearly forgotten program. Drives had become filled with the mundane sounds of my car shifting gears, along with frequent road-rage induced cursing. With a limited data plan and not many options, I became desperate to find something else to listen to. I was more-or-less caught up on the few podcasts I follow, so I was about to start searching for a new one to sample when I noticed Criminal at the bottom of my library list.
I clicked on it curiously and scrolled through the substantial list of available episodes, unsure of where exactly I had stopped listening, but satisfied that it must’ve been relatively early on because most of the summaries were unfamiliar. This show could potentially be the solution to my problem. I was ultimately convinced to give it another chance when I realized that the episode times ran from about 20 to 30 minutes on average, which would fit into my commute nicely. An individual episode wouldn’t quite fill the entire drive, but I liked the fact that I would be able to get through one in a sitting, and I could potentially listen to two shorter episodes if I hit a lot of traffic.
I started with the most recent episode and worked my way backwards. It was like catching up with an old friend I had lost touch with.
Criminal was created in January of 2014 by Phoebe Judge (who also acts as the host) and Lauren Spohrer. Episodes are released twice a month on Fridays and usually involve a combination of background information provided by Phoebe interspersed with interviews she’s done with people associated with the story at hand; she’s interviewed a wide range of subjects including criminals themselves, victims of crime, people who have been wrongfully convicted, family members of either criminals or victims, and various members of law enforcement. The episodic nature of the podcast allows the listener to pick and choose which stories he/she wants to listen to and which ones he/she prefers to skip. It also takes some of the pressure off trying to keep up with a program—missing a week or two (or even a year or two, like me) won’t affect your listening experience. With a few exceptions, it’s a one-and-done deal. And when a story spans two separate episodes, listeners are informed both in the written summary of the episode and in the introduction of the second part, suggesting that you go back and listen to the previous episode before moving on to the present one.
That brings me to the problem I come across whenever I write about media that features stand-alone episodes—how do I review it? This time around, I thought I would highlight three episodes I found particularly memorable, though I won’t go into too much detail, lest I ruin your listening experience. Doing this will allow me to give you a sampling of the kinds of cases Criminal covers and prove that it’s not your average true crime show. And though it can be difficult to find images to include in an article about a podcast, I lucked out with this one because it has a resident artist. The artwork that follows (and most of the artwork featured above) was created specifically for each episode by Julienne Alexander.
We’ll begin with Episode 113: Hostage, which originally aired on April 26, 2019. Have you ever heard the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome”? This episode explores the case that inspired the diagnosis, a robbery in a Swedish bank during which four hostages became friends with their captors. Most of this episode revolves around an interview with one of the bank robbers, Clark Olofsson, and his account of the events. He describes how a combination of maintaining a calm demeanor, genuinely caring about the comfort of his captives, and some good ol’ fashioned manipulation helped keep the situation under control and the hostages on his side.
Next, I’d like to go back a few years to February 5, 2016 and tell you a little bit about Episode 36: Perfect Specimen. It’s the story of a very special tree in Austin, Texas, that was poisoned in 1989. The Treaty Oak is a 500-year old Southern live oak, the last surviving tree of a group of 14 honored by Native Americans, once called “the most perfect specimen of any living tree in the country.” But when a highly toxic herbicide was poured around its base, foresters had to scramble in order to try and save the tree, while the police dedicated themselves to uncovering who would do such a thing, and why. Along with details of the crime, this episode describes how the herbicide involved works as well as how scientists ultimately managed to salvage at least part of the famous oak.
Finally, there’s Episode 116: Jessica and the Bunny Ranch, released June 7, 2019, which I found absolutely fascinating. This episode features interviews with three different sex workers (for those who are unaware, the term “prostitute” should no longer be used to refer to people who belong to this profession): one works independently as an escort in New York City where sex work is illegal, one works legally in the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada, and one is a transgender woman who used to work as an undocumented sex worker. While I know this topic isn’t for everyone, I learned a lot about what the profession entails, and it turns out that sex work is not what the average person thinks it is. In the end, it’s not all about sex—a lot of it is about intimacy and, surprisingly, education.
Are you intrigued yet? How could you not be? Each episode is undeniably unique, so most of them cover stories you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Like the female investigator in the early 1900s known as “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,” the famous poodle that was kidnapped in the 1950s, the police diver who risked his life to recover evidence from the La Brea Tar Pits, and the lengths to which someone might go to obtain a bottle of the limited-edition bourbon Pappy Van Winkle. The sheer variety of topics is impressive—I would say that there’s something for everyone, but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Every single episode I’ve listened to has been enjoyable, even the ones that I suspected might not be my cup of tea. I always find myself fully engaged, squirreling away important information and random fun facts as I make my way through a case.
Based on my current reaction to it, I must confess that I’m more baffled than ever as to why I stopped listening to Criminal in the first place.
I suspect that mystery will never be solved.
As for my car, I’m pleased to report that a coworker was kind enough to find me a replacement radio on eBay, order it, and install it, so my frustrating commutes to and from work are once again filled with music. But now that I’ve rediscovered Criminal, I’m going to stick with it. All of the episodes are well-researched and informative, plus I find Phoebe Judge’s calm, silky voice soothing. At this point I still have a few episodes from the very beginning that I need to listen to, but I’ve made an effort to keep up with newer ones as they’re released. For more information on Criminal, its creators, episodes, and a quick “how to” guide on listening to podcasts for the uninitiated, visit their website. Even if you’re not entirely convinced, at least take a look at some of the episode summaries to see if one catches your eye. It would be criminal if you didn’t…