I’m not going to say, “winter is coming,” one, because by the time this goes to print, the first season of House of the Dragon will have wrapped up, like, two months ago (aka two decades in GoT years). Totally unscientific fan theory that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately (maybe I should write an article for The Cut about it?): Dramione shippers like me grew up to be Daemon fangirls.
Two, would I ever be so trite as to co-opt that most memorable of Starkisms? Copywriters of the world, please stop using the first family of Winterfell’s motto to sell your coats/sweaters/scarves/etc.
In my case, winter isn’t coming. I’m headed home to Florida for the holidays, aka the land of plastic lawn flamingos, climate denialism, and imperiled democratic norms.
I can only guess that another Sunshine State-dweller (largely responsible for said imperiled democratic norms) will also be spending the holidays down south.
If you’re looking for a little not-so-light (but definitely crime-adjacent) winter reading, might I suggest Mark Leibovich’s Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, a rollicking volume documenting the days we spent under the once rapidly tweeting thumbs of the former Toddler in Chief?
I know: aren’t we sick of talking about the orange-maned He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Maybe. But the question should really be this: can we even afford to be “sick of” him, especially when he’s just announced another presidential run?
Also, it happened: since my last column, perennially pregnant Elizabeth Holmes has been sentenced. Eleven years sure is a long time.
What was I doing eleven years ago? Smoking my way to an early death, subsisting on supermarket sushi, and dating a guy who said I didn’t need other friends because I had him. (His mother was a comparative literature professor. I think—actually, I know—I was more interested in her than I was in him.)
In eleven years, when Holmes walks out of Club Fed for the last time, where will we—as in this country and the wider world—be? If the news is any indication, nowhere good.
Still, when the future, to put it lightly, scares me more than a grisly true crime podcast, I like to remember the late, great nonfiction doyenne Joan Didion. She had absolutely no fear (or so it seemed) of looking the cold, hard truth in the face. Of painstakingly examining—and documenting—its warty underbelly for all to see.
Perhaps it’s cheesy to end this introduction with a Didion quote (How trite! How very liberal-arts-y of you), and there are so many to choose from, but how about this one from 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking:
“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.”
I’m not going to pretend that anything I write is of the hard-hitting journalism variety because it’s not, but I’ll still say this:
Just “being scared” does absolutely nothing. Keep reading, listening, and observing. Keep recording. Write it all down. Your life—and those of countless others—might depend on it.
That it. Soapbox speech done. Now onto the podcasts!
(Campside Media/Sony Music Entertainment) – Premiered Nov. 10th
If you grew up as I did in the late ‘90s and early aughts, you probably engaged in the following nighttime ritual: staying up way past one’s bedtime watching infomercials.
As the clock ticked closer to the wee hours, the As-Seen-On-TV offerings morphed from rather banal (ProActiv SkinCare, Tony Little’s not-so-little Gazelle) to, well, decidedly less PG fare.
Yes, I’m talking about Girls Gone Wild.
At the time of my late-night infomercial viewings, I had no secondary-sex characteristics to speak of (and basically still don’t), but that didn’t stop me, in that very preadolescent way, from comparing myself to these nameless breast-baring girls.
Who were they? What kind of lives did they lead when they weren’t lifting up their shirts? More importantly, would I, when I ascended to that far off realm called “college,” become one of them? Is this what college was all about? Flashing faceless camera guys?
Of course, the boobs themselves, despite this being late-night TV, were not actually visible. You had to buy the VHS tapes (and, later, DVDs) for those pesky logo-emblazoned parallelograms to disappear.
In the age of #MeToo and OnlyFans, the very conceit of Girls Gone Wild seems antediluvian at best and downright misogynistic at worst. Surprisingly or not, it turns out that said-cameraman—the infamous Joe Francis—was making a pretty penny peddling his tapes (think hundreds of millions in revenue).
In Infamous, Vanessa Grigoriadis (host of Fallen Angel and Run, Bambi, Run) and Gabriel Sherman (Vanity Fair correspondent and author of Roger Ailes bio The Loudest Man in the Room) dig into one-time softcore porn king’s spectacular rise and downfall—not to mention his run-ins with one very law-abiding Floridian mayor hellbent on Francis’s destruction. (For what would a true-crime podcast be without a little Sunshine State zest?)
In addition to Girls Gone Wild, Infamous will also explore other, well, infamous characters populating the seamiest corners of our pop culture landscape (think NXIVM’s Allison Mack who, if our sources are correct, will be giving her on-the-record take—her first ever!—to Infamous in a future episode.)
Suspect: Vanished in the Snow
(Campside Media/Wondery) – Premiered Oct. 17 – Available only on Amazon Music
Unpopular opinion: I actually like re-tread podcasts, ones that exhume cases that have seemingly already been covered to death (no pun intended) by other podcasts, docuseries, made-for-TV movies, etc.
A re-tread (a good one, that is—there are plenty of bad ones out there) gives writer/researchers and viewer/listeners the opportunity to push past the clichés, the accumulation of which tend flatten the “characters” who populate a case into a series of tropes. Without good re-treads, we run the risk of forgetting that these “characters” are/were, at one time, actual real-life people.
Also, in certain (but not all) straight-out-the-gate true-crime media, the focus is on the perpetrator, digging into his or her often-lurid idiosyncrasies while obscuring the victim’s humanity in the process.
Not so in Suspect’s second season, which covers the already-covered-to-the-hilt case of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews. In the 38 years since 12-year-old Matthews disappeared from her Greeley, CO home, media outlets have zeroed in on Steve Pankey, the long-time suspect in Matthews’s death and two-time Idaho gubernatorial candidate.
True crime, as I’m sure you’re probably aware if you’re reading this article, is populated by a host of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction characters (Hello, Carole Baskin, whom I recently learned is, like me, bisexual, so yay for that, but not so yay for maybe sticking your husband in a meat grinder?). Pankey, on the other hand, is next-level weird. (Take a listen to his rambling questioning sessions and/or his wacky political ads if you need proof.)
Suspect is the first time I really felt like I go to know Jonelle, the funny and outspoken girl she was in life—instead of focusing squarely on Pankey and his weirdness.
Listening to Jonelle’s family and friends (especially her best friend, who was with Jonelle the night she went missing), I was transported back to 1984, before she became the first “girl-on-the-milk-carton.” So even if you feel you know this case inside and out, give Suspect season two a listen.
Killer Psyche Daily
(Wondery/Treefort Media) – Premiered on Nov. 1. – Available only on Amazon Music)
Ethos, I used to tell my students back when I taught first-year writing as a grad student, is a rhetorical tool that appeals to our sense of a speaker’s credibility.
While logos and pathos tap into our logical and emotional sides—our powers to reason and “catch feels,” respectively—ethos relies upon the speaker’s qualifications—the degrees, institutional affiliations, and/or other markers of expertise (work experience, commendations from other capital-E “experts” in the field etc.) that lend the speaker a certain level of believability.
This person, we think, upon learning that he/she has a certain credential, a Big Important Job™, or, in the case of true crime, a particularly notable “solve” under his or her belt, must know what he or she is talking about. How else would he or she have landed that book deal and/or wound up as a talking head on Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?
I, as a first-time instructor tasked with teaching forty-four college freshmen how to write reasonably coherent academic essays, was decidedly lacking in ethos.
I hadn’t yet completed my graduate degree (had barely begun my master’s thesis, in fact, which was due in a matter of months, but my thesis advisor didn’t know that) and was barely older than (or, in some cases, the same age as) my students.
Forget all the girl-boss bullshit that was swirling around the cultural stew at that time. (This was 2017, the height of such millennial pink confections as The Wing.) I was a fraud! My students had absolutely no business calling me “professor.”
I squirmed when they made this fatal error and corrected them as quickly as possible.
“‘Ms.’ is fine,” I’d squeak out. Ms., after all, was the name of feminist magazine, one I vowed to read as soon as I had time to do anything other than plan lessons, grade essays, pretend to write my thesis, and drink enough coffee to fell an elephant.
(If you’re reading this and catching some the-lady-doth-protest-too-much vibes, don’t worry—so am I.)
As for logos, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing my students didn’t demand to see my own academic essays from college. (They were long, meandering affairs that never quite got to the point.) What could I say? I was a creative writer. If anyone asked why my papers lacked cogent argumentation, I’d say I was a pacifist.
Pathos, on the other hand, I had plenty of, as evidenced by my all-black wardrobe, perpetual scowl, and the moody cigarette breaks I took in between teaching classes that semester.
If there’s anyone in the true-crime world who isn’t lacking in ethos, it’s Candice DeLong, who really should have an honorific like “Lady” or “Duchess” in front of her name given her impressive list of bonafides.
If you’ve seen, well, just about any Investigation Discovery docuseries, you probably already know that this grand dame of true crime brings two decades of experience as an FBI criminal profiler to the table. (She worked on both the Chicago Tylenol murders and Unabomber cases and is the former lead profiler for the FBI’s San Francisco bureau.)
Perhaps even than her long list of qualifications (not to mention the fact that she’s gorgeous—real Kris-Jenner-with-blue-eyes-vibes), it’s DeLong’s voice that draws me in: smooth but commanding, placing emphasis on certain words and pausing at all the right moments.
Perhaps if I’d channeled DeLong’s commanding vocal presence, my English 120 students would have been more interested in my otherwise lackluster lectures on the Aristotelian appeals.
Either way, I could listen to the Lady Candice all day. Her newest podcast offering from Amazon Music might sound like it’s not new new (it’s a spin-off of her current pod Killer Psyche), but trust me: it is. On Killer Psyche Daily, DeLong serves up bite-sized (think ten minutes) but oh-so-scrumptious morsels on up-to-the-minute true-crime stories. Recent KPD have covered the epidemic of violence against trans people of color and breaks in the Delphi murder case.
(BBC) – Premiered Sept. 6
If you’ve seen teen-movie classic Drive Me Crazy (come for the killer soundtrack, stay for peak-90s fashion like butterfly clips and yellow-tinted shades), you might remember the scene where Adrien Grenier’s character is taken (read: dragged) to an ALF meeting by his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Dulcie (check out Ali Larter’s amazing pink-tipped tresses BTW).
In Drive Me Crazy, ALF (which stands for “Animal Liberation Front”) is treated as somewhat of a punchline. Unless I’m remembering incorrectly (I tried to check, but the film isn’t available on any of the streaming services I subscribe to), there’s a memorable line where Grenier’s character somewhat incredulously says “Alf?” as though he can’t believe an organization would share a name with one of the Muppets). I can assure you: after listening to Burn Wild, you will take ALF—and related organization Earth Liberation Front, or “ELF”—very seriously.
How did a group that has neither killed nor injured anyone come to be designated as the number-one domestic terror threat in America? Especially one whose cri de cœur is rooted in saving the very-much-imperiled planet we call home?
I always thought that those who dedicated their lives to protecting this world’s flora and fauna (and/or combating climate change) were fighting the good fight. Not so, according to the FBI, which put ELF activists Joseph Mahmoud Dibee (pronounced DEE-bay) and Josephine Sunshine Overaker on its Most Wanted Domestic Terrorists list in 2006.
How did a former Microsoft employee (Dibee) and graduate of a posh prep school (Overaker) end up in the FBI’s crosshairs? Were they really members of “The Family,” the Manson-sounding name the FBI gave to those who participated in a series of arsons in the Pacific Northwest in the late ‘90s and early 2000s? That’s what podcast pros Leah Sottile (Bundyville) and Georgia Catt (The Missing Crytoqueen) want to find out.
Sottile and Catt interview people on both sides of the debate (including Dibee himself! Don’t worry—it’s not a spoiler to say that), digging into the fractious issue that is the underground environmental movement. Along the way, they’ll tackle a number of difficult questions: What counts as “terrorism”? Are destructive actions ever justified—especially if the fate of the planet hangs in the balance?
(USG Audio/What’s the Story? Sounds) – Premiered Oct. 4
When I’m watching a true crime doc or listening to a podcast, almost more interesting than the crime itself (or the motives behind it) is learning what, exactly, the killer did to cover up his or her actions. Did the he or she wear gloves? Rid the scene of DNA using industrial-strength cleaners? Or, my personal favorite, part with his or her fingertips in a more, um, permanent fashion, à la John Dillinger? Whatever the method, I find these attempted cover-ups fascinating, but you know what’s even more intriguing? A crime where the killer who didn’t try to cover up his actions—not one bit.
Such is the case in this as-yet-unsolved Japanese mystery.
On December 30, 2000, a man wearing a heavy jacket and bucket hat murdered all four members of the Miyazawa family—including two children. By all accounts, the Miyazawas were a typical middle-class Tokyo family: dad Mikio worked for a branding consultancy and mom Yasuko had her own tutoring business. Eight-year-old Niina loved ballet. Her six-year-old brother had a speech impediment, but his family provided him with the loving support and specialized treatment he needed to thrive.
After murdering the family in a brutal fashion, the killer didn’t cover his tracks and/or flee the scene. Instead, “The Faceless Man” (as he has since been dubbed) made himself right at home, eating the Miyazawas’ food (including more than four servings of ice cream), helping himself to their clothes, taking a nap, and using Mikio’s computer. Only after doing all this—and leaving a ton of his own DNA behind in the process, which he made no attempt to clean up—did he depart the Miyazawa home.
Two decades have since passed—long enough for bucket hats to make a comeback, but not enough time, evidently, for this case to get solved. All of that may change soon, however, with crime-fiction-writer-turned-podcaster Nicolás Obregón on the case. Obregón’s deep dive into this case will have him crossing the globe—from Japan to Korea to California to Scotland—trying to figure out who wanted this suburban family dead.
If Books Could Kill
(Michael Hobbes & Peter Shamshiri) – Premiered Nov. 2
If you’re looking for a show in which War and Peace-sized tomes wreak deadly havoc, sadly, this is not the pod for you, though I’d still urge you to give this one a listen. (Also, in terms of cover art, who knew blood-soaked books could be so cute?)
Full disclosure: I am obsessed with everything Michael Hobbes does. Even though it’s not technically a true-crime podcast, his other show Maintenance Phase (which he co-hosts with Aubrey Gordon, with whom I am equally obsessed) has plenty of crime-y content. Case in point: the pair’s recent episode on Daily Harvest, the prepackaged food start-up that landed in hot water (and, probably in the near future, federal court) when its “healthy” products sent hundreds to the hospital with liver failure.
His other podcast You’re Wrong About has plenty of crime and crime-adjacent material too (see episodes about the O.J. Simpson case, the infamous “Twinkie Defense,” and the true crime genre itself).
Now, with his third (!) foray into the pod-o-sphere (oof—I can just tell MH would not approve of that awful neologism—Michael Hobbes, if you want to criticize me, I would take it as the highest flattery) is taking on a literary genre we’re all familiar with: the airport book.
In the age of smartphones (not to mention ubiquitous outlets in case of said smartphones’ demise), the idea of buying a book to pass the time while in flight might seem a little quaint, but how easily one forgets just how influential books like 2005’s Freakonomics were. (Also, we can’t forget the fact that the Freakonomics dudes were already churning out podcast episodes way back in the pre-Serial dark ages.)
On the first episode of If Books Could Kill, Hobbes and Shamshiri tackle Freakonomics, specifically its very suspect suppositions on why crime decreased markedly in the ‘90s and 2000s. Thanks to Hobbes and Shamshiri’s research-heavy, venturing-into-the-weeds approach, we see exactly how supposedly unbiased “scientific” data can be distorted in service of promoting certain ideological narratives. (Sound familiar?)
Future episodes will cover topics like Neil Strauss’s infamous 2005 book The Game, which brought the sociopathic machinations of so-called “pick-up artists” into the national spotlight.
(New York Times) – Premiered Oct. 7
This one didn’t start out as a true-crime podcast, and I’m sure that reporting on the nefarious doings of Silicon Valley’s elite is not exactly what Serious Tech Journalists™ Casey Newton (Platformer) and Kevin Roose (NYT and 2020 pod Rabbit Hole, which looks into the internet’s power to radicalize) had in mind for their new show, but what are you supposed to do when tech people fuck up as splendidly (and criminally) as Sam Bankman-Fried did?
Bankman-Fried (aka SBF) reminds me of the guys I dated (read: tried, for the most part unsuccessfully, to get to fall in love with me) before I settled down with my now-partner:
Insanely smart and incredibly nerdy. Utterly uninterested in things like fashion and personal hygiene. And, perhaps most of all, possessed of incredible heads of perpetually unkempt hair.
I lived for these sorts of guys, the ones who could talk circles around me about things like chess and coding, who spent dates telling me what an idiot I was for not having a 401k, and did I really think that something like “creative writing” was a practical thing to major in?
I’m not going to pretend that I understand cryptocurrency (or, for that matter, anything involving numbers), but luckily, I don’t have to in order to enjoy Hard Fork.
Of course, Hard Fork isn’t just about FTX and SBF: this is, after all, a tech podcast, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from Elizabeth Holmes, the “move fast and break things” mindset of Silicon Valley can sometimes have some very criminal results.
As I write this, I’m sure scores of media execs are plotting their own takes on FTX’s spectacular downfall. This story has it all: drugs (the brain performance-enhancing kind), sex (bed-swapping in the Bahamas!), and money—lots and lots of money. Right now, I’m taking bets on which young actor said execs might cast as SBF. Finn Wolfhard? The Plot Against America’s Jacob Laval? At fourteen, Laval might be a little too young to play a convincing SBF, though given the glacial pace of Hollywood adaptations (we’re still waiting on Bad Blood, Apple’s take on the Theranos debacle, which Jennifer Lawrence recently backed out of), the up-and-coming actor might have time to grow up.
Instead of waiting for the wave of FTX-inspired podcasts, TV shows, and docs that is sure to hit our shores in the near future, I’m going to listen to Hard Fork, which has the benefit of unraveling this story (and other ones like it) in real time.
Also, did I mention that Elon Musk has his own theme song on Hard Fork? It’s pure 8-bit spookiness—think Super Mario’s Bowser if he was in charge of two multibillion-dollar companies and had a penchant for procreation. Go to 2:53 on Episode 3: Elon’s Hidden Motives + A Meetup to check it out. I promise you won’t regret it.
Paradise Lost: Crime in Miami
(My Cultura, Sonoro, and iHeartPodcasts) – Premiered May 18
Now, you know it wouldn’t be a Lizzy Steiner podcast round-up without a healthy dose of the Sunshine State, now would it? I’m absolutely obsessed with Paradise Lost—and I’m not talking about Milton’s doorstopper of a book. This instant classic, one of the newest offerings from iHeartPodcast’s MyCutura network, South Florida natives Kareem Tabsch and Joey Daoud dig deeper into Floridian crime than the massive sinkholes dotting our peninsular landscape.
Case in point: the pair’s episode on Griselda Blanco aka “The Black Widow” aka The Cocaine Godmother, who once controlled a Miami-based international drug cartel that reportedly raked in $80 million a month (and that’s in 1980s money).
After growing up in poverty in Colombia, La Madrina (Spanish for “the godmother”) made her way to New York, where she began building up her cocaine empire using her Colombian contacts. After skipping town to avoid federal drug charges, Blanco set up shop in South Florida, where her queendom—and her body count—only continued to grow. The thrice-married Griselda went all out on the Godmother thing, even going so far as to name one of her sons “Michael Corleone.” Eventually, however, the FBI caught up with La Madrina and she wound up in the slammer, but even time in Club Fed couldn’t keep this ever-enduring entrepreneur down.
Stories of grit and glamour like this one populate Paradise Lost, where Miami itself, just as much as its sunny-but-shady denzens, comes alive as a character of its own.