Tuesday 6 June 2023

Heather Critchlow on The Rise of the True Crime Podcast

©Photography by Helen Rosemier

Ever since the first series of US podcast Serial aired in 2014, millions have been fascinated by true crime podcasts and the dynamics behind them. That series, which ultimately led to an innocent man being released from jail, lit a spark and inspired countless others to follow.

These podcasts form a steady backdrop to my life. I take them walking, running and driving, cook and clean with them as the soundtrack. The voices trickle into my mind and the stories they tell stay there, haunting, terrifying, raging with injustice. 

The podcast has breathed new life into audio and the beauty of it is that it’s a democratic medium. There are media organisations making slick and well-funded series, but the barrier to entry is low and plenty start out as a couple of people with an iPhone. The sheer number of true crime podcasts out there means families of victims have a greater chance to be heard, with an audience invested in finding answers and fresh sets of eyes on the way their loved one’s case was handled.

My preferred type of true crime podcasts are those that dive into cold cases and attempt to find new evidence to solve these decades-old mysteries. To do this, podcasters travel to remote places, doorstep unlikely and uncommunicative people and lend a voice to those who have been forgotten by the wider world. The Teacher’s Pet, an Australian podcast about missing woman Lynette Dawson, led to a conviction, while US series Up and Vanished has help solve the mystery of what happened to missing teacher Tara Grinstead. It’s heartening that people who think they’ve got away with murder now have something else to fear.

Unlike TV documentary series, which are usually commissioned for a set number of episodes, true crime podcasts have been known to go on much longer than originally planned, with podcasters returning to review developments in ad hoc episodes. Some spend years working on the cases they investigate, often becoming far more drawn into a case than they expected when they set out. What drives them to do this and what is the impact on their own lives?

That is one of the questions at the heart of Unsolved, my debut novel about a true crime podcaster. In the first book, Cal Lovett travels to Aberdeenshire to investigate the cold case of a missing woman who rode her horse into the woods thirty-five years ago and never came out.

I’ve taken inspiration from the real world in creating him. David Ridgen, the Canadian journalist behind podcast Someone Knows Something is a master at delving into complicated cases that remain unsolved. Ridgen has a poetic style of narration and tenacity backed with kindness that I wanted my protagonist to emulate. He has also been known to take his son with him when investigating cases and in Unsolved Cal’s teenage daughter Chrissie accompanies him for a time.

And then imagination takes flight. Cal has particular reasons for seeking justice in cold cases – his own older sister vanished when he was nine years old and has never been found. Like those of us who listen to true crime podcasts, Cal desperately wants to know the truth. For him, it is deeply personal.

Time changes everything: people age and perspectives alter, allegiances shift and guilt seeps through relationships where someone knows something. As well as scientific advances moving things on, sometimes the simple truth is that people are now just ready to talk. 

When I started writing Unsolved, I was interested in this willingness to speak, the motivations behind people opening up years on from events and the possibility that even in the present day they have their own agenda, shame about their actions and secrets they want to hide. How do we know those opening up are telling the truth? These are themes I am keen to explore in the series.

Undoubtedly, the true crime podcast taps into our burning desire to know. It’s not only the podcaster that becomes entwined in the search for the truth – they take the audience with them, creating an unofficial workforce and network of investigators. The best of them give voices to the families of victims who have been forgotten by the wider world, shining a light on corruption or ineptitude. If we’re lucky, then they also deliver justice to those who have been waiting a very long time for it.

Unsolved by Heather Critchlow (Canelo Books) Out Now. 

He won't rest until he finds out the truth... Cal Lovett is obsessed with finding justice for the families of missing people. His true crime podcast is his way of helping others, even if he can't help himself. His sister, Margot, disappeared when he was a child. Only one man seems to know something. But he's behind bars and can't be trusted. So when the family of a missing Scottish woman begs for his help, he heads to Aberdeenshire in search of the truth. Does Cal have what it takes to unearth the secrets hiding in the hills? And what if he finds something that leads him back to the heart of his own family's past?

More information about Heather Critchlow and her writing can be found on her website. She tweets @h_critchlow and can also be found on Instagram @heather.critchlow

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