Podcast Review 1: Four True Crime Podcasts

I have listened to a very few podcasts over the years, but just recently I began listening to more of them. I realized that I had strong opinions about how the podcasts were handled, so I thought that occasionally I would review some of them. So, this week I start with my first podcast review of four podcasts about unusual occurrences or true crime.

I found all four of these podcasts in a Marie Claire article listing the 60 best current true-crime podcasts.

These four podcasts fit very neatly into two groups. Two of the podcasts are limited series about one specific crime. The other two podcasts are series that continue indefinitely in which each podcast discusses one or two unusual cases. I’ll discuss the limited series first.

Tom Brown’s Body

Tom Brown’s Body is a very professionally produced podcast by Texas Monthly. It features their seasoned reporter and published author, Skip Hollandsworth, in a series of eight 45-minute episodes about the effect of an unsolved crime on a small Texas town. Or was it a crime? A popular high school boy first went missing and then was discovered dead, but it’s not clear whether the death is a suicide or a murder.

Of course, with this powerful magazine to produce it, there is not a glitch in the production, but also impressive is the writing and interview technique of this scripted podcast. Everything about this podcast is interesting and professional. I don’t mean to imply that I am biased toward a professional vs. unprofessional podcast, just that there is nothing to criticize. I found this podcast very interesting.

Paper Ghosts

Paper Ghosts is also a scripted podcast produced by iHeart Radio of ten half-hour episodes. It features true-crime writer M. William Phelps (at one point he asks a witness to call him M), and is about the disappearances or murders of several young girls and women near his home town in New England during the early 1970’s. It is also professionally produced.

While Hollandsworth’s interviews in Tom Brown’s Body had the more conventional purpose of just investigating the history and current status of the case, and the effect the case has on the town, Phelps is actively trying to solve the murders, or at least the podcast gives that impression. He is also very self-promotional and constantly brings himself into focus during the podcast. (I don’t mean he interviews people; I mean he talks about himself and his efforts a lot.) One serious negative for me as a grammar nerd was that, although this podcast is also scripted, he makes a few but consistent grammatical errors. I am not familiar with him as a true crime writer, but I hope he has a good editor. I found this podcast interesting, but I felt it was more repetitive than Tom Brown’s Body and less impressive. I’m also not clear on the meaning of the title.

And here’s a bitchy remark: We all know from studying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that using an initial instead of a first name is pretentious. The M is for Matthew. There’s nothing wrong with the name Matthew Phelps, M.

And That’s Why We Drink

And That’s Why We Drink is a weekly half-hour podcast featuring Christine Shiefer, a writer for Nickelodeon, and Em Schulz, a prop designer. Its focus is the supernatural and true crime, and it is much less formal than the other podcasts. It’s format is a couple of friends sitting around with drinks and telling each other spooky stories. It is produced by Kast Media, but I doubt that it is scripted, and at least the episode I listened to had none of the interim musical effects of the others or anything like that.

I have to confess that while I listened to the entirety of the first two podcasts, I could only stand listening to one episode of this one, despite the podcast being very popular. I found the format and unscripted nature of the podcast troublesome because the two women spend a lot of time chit-chatting about things that only they are interested in (like what their mothers are going to say about their podcast) and making lame jokes. Now, I listened to the first episode, and it’s very possible that they got better at this as they went along. However, this is a criticism I have had of all the two-person podcasts I have listened to.

I have more serious criticisms, though. One in particular about the first episode is that they selected some topics that most people know a lot about already, that is, the history and building of Winchester House and the Jim Jones tragedy. Contrast that with the other series I’m reviewing next, which told me about cases I’d never heard of. Again, this is just one episode, though.

What disturbed me more than that was my impression that they spent about ten minutes researching each topic. (One of them even said she looked it up the day before.) They showed an astounding ignorance of the time periods and settings of these events. For example, they made the fatuous assumption in the first story that because someone was known as the Boston Medium, he was the only medium in Boston at the time that he was consulted by Sarah Winchester. In reality spiritualism was very popular at that time and there were probably hundreds of mediums in Boston. Similarly, they basically boiled the 60’s down into sex and drugs. I would think that these two women, who (probably ironically) exclaimed that they had Master’s degrees could have put a little more effort into exploring the context of their stories.

OK, in this podcast, the two girls knew that hardly anyone was listening yet and they were just basically entertaining themselves. To be fair, I should have probably listened to a more recent episode. However, these women seemed so silly and superficial to me that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Supernatural with Ashley Flowers

Supernatural is a weekly podcast hosted by Ashley Flowers, a radio personality from Indiana and the creator of another podcast, Crime Junkie. My research on her, let me say right away, has indicated that she has been accused of plagiarism for some of the Crime Junkie episodes, in particular of copying other podcasts word for word. As an ex-writing instructor, I find this kind of behavior atrocious (apparently what she said in her defense was that people had copies from her as well), but I was not aware of this issue until I researched her name just now, and I didn’t see any similar allegations about Supernatural.

This podcast is concerned with unexplained cases, some of them true crime, that may involve the supernatural. I listened so far to two-and-a-half episodes. I found this series, which is produced by Parcast, to be very professional.

This podcast is clearly scripted, and in each half-hour episode Flowers covers one unusual case. Both of the complete episodes I listened to involved possible alien activity. I had not heard of either of these cases and found them interesting. One was a true-crime case about two men found dead wearing lead masks on the top of a hill near Rio de Janeiro. The other case was about possible alien abductions in 1980’s Maine. This podcast is professionally written and produced.

My Rankings

I ask myself “Would I return to this podcast?” for the weekly podcasts and “Would I listen to another podcast?” for the limited series that I have finished listening to.

In order from best to worst:

  1. Tom Brown’s Body: Would I listen to another podcast from Skip Hollandsworth? Yes
  2. Supernatural: Would I return to this podcast? Maybe, if I just consider the podcast and not the plagiarism charge
  3. Paper Ghosts: Would I listen to another podcast from M. William Phelps? Probably not
  4. And That’s Why We Drink: Would I return to this podcast? No

I just started out listening to these podcasts for my own amusement, but if there is interest in more reviews, I will take it on as more of a research project. Did you enjoy these reviews? Are there any podcast topics you would suggest I look into? Of course, the next review will be of book podcasts.

Review 1556: Dark Enchantment

I was delighted to receive a review copy of Dark Enchantment from Tramp Press from their Recovered Voices series and decided to time my review for the season. This is especially felicitous because the movie from another Dorothy Macardle book, The Uninvited, has been my family’s go-to Halloween movie for years. This is another entry for RIPXV.

After three years of teaching, an occupation that Juliet Frith likens to drudgery, she is exhausted and unwell. Her employers, eager for her to leave because of newspaper stories about her mother, have summoned her father to take her away. Frith is an actor who can’t afford to support Juliet and doesn’t know what to do with her, but for now they are vacationing on the Côte d’Azur.

On a day trip to visit villages in the Alps Maritimes, Juliet is taken ill at an inn, so Frith makes arrangements for them to stay the entire week. Juliet improves rapidly and befriends the pregnant wife of the innkeeper, Martine, so Frith arranges for Juliet to stay there when he has to leave for a job. Juliet will be working half-time at the inn for the length of Martine’s pregnancy. It helps that Juliet has met Michael, studying trees in the nearby forest.

The lives of all the villagers are soon wrapped up in drama because of Terka, a beautiful Romany woman who is missing an eye. She has a reputation as a sorceress, and the villagers are terrified of her. Although Juliet thinks Terka is being treated unfairly, Martine’s husband René is foremost at trying to drive her out of the area, so she has turned her attentions to poor Martine as well as others. Things begin to get ugly.

This novel develops slowly at first, but it has appealing characters and kept my interest. Although the threat foretold for Juliet doesn’t really pan out, she becomes deeply involved in the fortunes of Martine and René. I enjoyed this light read very much.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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Review 1496: #1920Club: The Doom That Came to Sarnath

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” which I read for the 1920 Club, was my introduction to H. P. Lovecraft, whom I’ve read about for years. Based on this one story, I can’t really say much about Lovecraft’s work, but I intend to read all of the book it came in, The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham.

The short story is written in archaic language that is supposed to remind us, and does, of old stories and legends. It tells how men came to live near the ancient city of Ib, occupied by green, voiceless beings with bulging eyes, and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants, and how its sea green idol disappeared. There the men founded the city of Sarnath.

Later, the city becomes wealthy and so beautiful that people from other cities visit it. But doom was foretold with the original actions of the men, and on the city’s thousandth anniversary . . . . Well, I won’t tell.

I get the impression just from the notes on this annotated edition that Lovecraft invented whole worlds that he returned to in other stories. The story is atmospheric but very short and not particularly scary or disturbing.

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Review 1386: Once Upon a River

Here we are with another novel that was difficult for me to rate. On the one hand, it is more fairy tale-like than is usually my taste. On the other hand, it kept my attention. Yet again, it presents us with a mystery that isn’t very difficult to solve.

In an inn along the Thames at an unspecified period in time, the patrons and owners occupy themselves with telling tales. One dark night, however, a tale comes right to the house. A man staggers in, all beaten and bloody, carrying what appears to be a puppet. It turns out to be a little girl, apparently dead. Indeed, when the local nurse, Rita, is summoned, she sees that the girl has dilated pupils and no pulse. But something doesn’t seem right, and the girl comes back to life.

She doesn’t speak, however, and no one knows who she is. The injured man, Henry Daunt, only saw her in the flood before he lost his boat.

Soon, there are several possible identities for the girl. Robert Armstrong finds a letter for his son, Robin, from a woman begging for help for her and his daughter. When Robert goes to her, she has just committed suicide and no one knows what happened to her four-year-old daughter, Alice. Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, says the girl is her sister, Ann. Then the Vaughns claim her. Two years ago, their daughter, Amelia, was kidnapped. When they paid the ransom, the girl was not returned.

There are problems with all these stories. Robert Armstrong has never seen his grandchild, and his son, Robin, seems to be unsure whether the girl is Alice. Sadly, Robin is frequently up to no good. Lily is far too old, in her forties, to have a four-year-old sister. Finally, although Helena Vaughn is convinced the girl is Amelia, Anthony Vaughn, Rita can see, clearly doesn’t believe it.

Lots of secrets come out before we learn who the girl is, or rather, because I thought it was obvious, have it confirmed. In addition, there are lots of subplots, like a stolen pig, a runaway boy, a mysterious visitor, that all somehow related to the book’s central mystery.

The novel has some really rotten bad guys, as all fairy tales must have. It also has some very likable characters, in particular, Henry Daunt, Rita, and Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong. I think that readers who enjoy fairy tales will like this book and some others will, too.

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Review 1385: The Miniaturist

Best of Ten!
I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.

Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.

Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.

Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.

This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.

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Review 1375: Melmoth

Helen Franklin is an Englishwoman living in Prague who leads a willfully colorless and drab existence. She dresses and behaves as if she wants no one to notice her and makes a living translating brochures. In nine years in Prague, she has made only two friends, Karel and Thea, a couple.

Helen encounters Karel one night, looking ill. Thea was recently stricken by multiple sclerosis, and Helen assumes he is worried about her. He tells her the story of a manuscript he’s been given that documents sightings of Melmoth. In the legend of the novel, Melmoth (who seems in actuality to be based on a male character in an Irish Gothic novel) witnessed Christ arisen from the grave but denied it. In this novel, Melmoth is an evocatively described woman, a suggestion of tattered sheer silks, who is fated to witness man’s inhumanity. She appears to those who have entered the depths of despair and asks them to keep her company.

Through the manuscripts, we learn the stories of several people who have caused the sufferings of others and who have met Melmoth. Both Karel and Helen are immediately obsessed with this vision and imagine Melmoth stalking them.

The novel is tied together by the gradual exposure of Helen’s own crime, but the themes of the novel center around the history of man’s inhumanity and the importance and difficulty of witness.

This novel was certainly a departure from Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. It has a deeply Gothic atmosphere, suitable for its setting in Prague, but I didn’t understand its characters’ fascination with Melmoth. Also, I had little sympathy for most of the characters whose crimes are related in the manuscript, even though I was sympathetic to Helen. Although this novel has more serious intentions, I have to say I preferred The Essex Serpent.

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Review 1326: The Coffin Path

Cover for The Coffin PathIt’s 1674, and Mercy Booth helps her aging father work a sheep farm in remote northern England. She feels that at 28, she is beyond marriage, but she really only cares about the farm.

In early spring, she is out on the moor when she feels that someone is watching her with enmity. After that, strange things begin happening in the house. Three old coins disappear from her father’s drawer. She hears noises upstairs when no one seems to be there. She catches glimpses of a pale face. The home is believed to be cursed after the three prior inhabitants were all murdered, their mouths covered with those missing coins.

Early in spring the head shepherd hired Ellis Ferreby, a wandering shepherd. The novel is narrated by him in alternate chapters as he observes what is going on. He, too, has seen and heard strange things.

Also key to the story is Sam, the young son of Ambrose, the head shepherd, who lately lost his twin brother after a fall. He is a favorite of the house but begins to behave strangely.

This novel is truly atmospheric, and although I had glimpses of its secrets, I could not figure everything out. I found myself interested in the characters and involved in what was happening to them. This is a real page-turner.

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Day 1227: Miss Seeton Flies High

Cover for Miss Seton Flies HighAgain, I requested Miss Seeton Flies High from Netgalley without realizing it is part of a series. In fact, “Hamilton Crane” is the pseudonym for the second writer of the series, the first being Heron Carvic. Miss Seeton Flies High is the 23rd book in the series.

If you are expecting a traditional mystery from this series, you’ll be surprised. Miss Seeton is a sort of cross between Miss Marple and a medium. Her forte is drawing surrealistic pictures that give the police clues about the crime in question, if they can figure them out.

Miss Seeton is asked about the kidnapping of a rich playboy and draws a picture of crazed sheep that leads the police instead to a pot-growing enterprise. Later, the retired art teacher receives a much-appreciated windfall. She uses it to take a short vacation in Glasonbury to research King Arthur for a local play. In Glastonbury, she meets a man who later becomes a victim.

This novel is set in the 1970’s and has a little bit of the 70’s atmosphere, especially with hippies and other New Agers in Glastonbury.

link to NetgalleyOf course, even the notion that the police would take Miss Seeton’s drawings seriously is ridiculous, let alone treat them as evidence. The reader has no hope of interpreting the drawings and guessing the perpetrator of the crime, since they are full of puns and not enough information about them is provided. Essentially, these novels are meant as spoofs of whodunnits. I’m sure they’re fun to write. I didn’t find the novel as much fun to read.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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