With the launch of the first series of Serial in 2014, the true-crime podcast became a recognised new genre – and a popular one: according to Serial’s producers, the first two seasons have been downloaded more than 250 million times. Across the world, further podcasts have re-investigated past crimes, their lure lying in the suggestion that the podcast itself might bring forward fresh witnesses or information that will solve the mystery. Indeed, some podcasts have resulted in new police enquiries, re-trials and even the overturning of a murder conviction.
And so, when my fictional detective DI Grace Fisher was poised to re-open a cold case in my latest novel Wrong Way Home, the temptation to pit her against a true-crime podcaster was irresistible. Freddie Craig and Stories from the Fire was born.
Freddie had to present himself as a reliable guide who will lead his audience on an investigative journey as it happens in real time. The genre demands that he not be fully in command of the cascade of incoming information.
After all, the disingenuous conceit of the true-crime podcast is that, because the narrative is presented as a genuine and subjective response to on-going events, it cannot also be artificially crafted or structured. The supposedly inevitable ambiguities, reversals and shifts in interpretation are assumed to signal an authenticity and immediacy lacking in crime novels, even though such elements serve precisely the same purpose as fictional hooks and twists.
What true-crime podcasts may deliberately conceal is when ‘sexy’ aspects are exaggerated or deliberately withheld for greater effect, and whether inconvenient facts are downplayed or even simply omitted.
Justice can indeed be enormously complex in real life, and the resolution of a true-crime podcast will often remain unpredictable and out of reach, but that won’t stop the audience longing for the best story to turn out to be the true one. Freddie Craig understood that, and exploited it, with fatal results.