What is it that makes us so fascinated by crime? Is it the motives behind the culprits’ action, sympathy for the victims or the sneaky suspicion that if it wasn’t for circumstance and sheer luck we could find ourselves embroiled in the sort of stories we regularly pour over?
The very best true crime podcasts have all of these elements as well as intriguing plotlines that prove the truth really is often stranger than fiction and characters that listeners strive to understand.
Some are dramatized versions of events, such as the excellent American Hostage starring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm – the story of a man desperate to be heard who finds a radio journalist willing to listen. Some, like Stories of the Stalked, are audio documentaries, while others, such as Fake Heiress, are a blend of the two.
But all the shows listed below will have you biting your nails as you wait for the next big reveal and you may find you’re holding your loved ones a little closer after listening.
Unless otherwise specified, all the series featured can be found on the usual podcast apps.
Do you have a favorite podcast you’d like us to review? Let’s us know in the comments.
At the same time radio journalist Fred Heckman is preparing for an anniversary lunch with his wife, elsewhere in town Tony Kiritis is pointing a shotgun at the head of his banker.
In an erratic 911 call, Kiritis reveals he has a ‘dead man’s line’ attached to the weapon. If he is incapacitated in any way, the gun will fire and his hostage will be killed. Then he calls Heckman to ask for a live radio interview.
Though more used to acting on screen, Jon Hamm (Mad Men) is brilliant as the Indianapolis journalist whose desire for a good story drags him into the middle of a 63-hour hostage situation that draws on events of real life. He and Joe Perrino as Kiritis have their work cut out for them in expressing extremes of emotion in what is essentially a duet between two very different men.
Hamm’s performance is restrained as the old-fashioned radio man attempts to take the unusual situation in his stride – but when he is worried or scared you feel it too. Meanwhile, between Perrino’s deft treatment of his character and clever writing of him, you-like Americans back in 1977-start to empathize with the man holding the shotgun.
Where to start: The action gets going quickly in the first episode, when Dick picks up a phone call that just might save a man’s life.
If the Netflix drama Inventing Anna left you craving more information about the fascinatingly cagey con artist that inspired it then Fake Heiress will at least partly quench your thirst. Part documentary, part drama, the BBC Sounds podcast was written by reporter Vicky Baker and playwright Chloe Moss – so, just like Anna’s invented back story, it is sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly which parts are real.
Russian-born Anna Delvey, real name Sorokin, painted such a vivid picture of herself as a German heiress that she swept along almost everyone she met. But her identity de ella was fiction, and the Manhattan socialite was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison for four counts of grand larceny and a further four of theft of services.
Fake Heiress explores elements such as her pre-New York past in more depth than the TV drama but there will always be questions.
Where to start: Episode one looks at Sorokin’s childhood and first job working for an exclusive Parisian magazine.
Stories of the Stalked
For the past 13 years, dancer Lily Baldwin has been stalked by a man whose name she knows but will not reveal on this podcast. Telling her story about her at all could put her further at risk, she warns a security expert she has hired while putting the series together.
The stalking began when she was performing in France with David Byrne, Brian Eno and Marianne Faithfull – one of 150 dates on an exhilarating tour. There, she sat in a seat next to a stranger whom she did not even notice, yet he would go on to claim that she kissed him. He followed her from Lyon to Lisbon to Edinburgh before writing to her at her parents’ home de ella.
“We don’t worry about the people who say they’re going to kill you. It’s the people who don’t say that, that do,” is the ominous warning from the assistant district attorney of New York’s Special Victims Unit, as Lily bravely recounts the terrifying experience of being the subject of an uncontrollable and completely unacceptable obsession.
Where to start: Listen to a sample on Audible.
Dorothy Marcic’s 2018 book With One Shot was the result of a two-year mission to uncover the truth behind the murder of former police detective LaVerne Stordock. Now her unraveling of the sinister real crime story has been turned into a podcast with an intriguing start – LaVerne’s second wife who was convicted of his murder after confessing and pleading insanity may not have been guilty after all.
The first episode takes a lot of concentration as the people involved and facts of the case are established. But it’s worth sticking with it.
Where to start: Episode one or check out the trailer.
Michael Caine: Gangs
As the Italian Job star spent a bit of time knocking around East London in the vicinity of the Kray Twins he’s the perfect person to narrate this podcast about gangs of all types and nationalities. His familiar tones of him bring a certain feeling of safety to the episodes-even when he’s talking about the murder of a child by Griselda ‘Black Widow’ Blanco at the age of just 11.
The Columbian drug lord, believed to be responsible for more than 200 deaths, is one of a list of notorious criminals who Caine stops just short of glorifying. To be fair, it is tricky to cover the subject at all without at least some listeners feeling thrilled by the respect these people demanded from their followers – and, in the Krays episode, Caine does pause to remind us of the impact of their violence. But there is not much information about the victims, who are little more than names in the brothers’ life story.
Where to start: Ep. 4: Omertà looks at the origins of the Mafia. An Audible exclusive.
Polonium & the Piano Player
Sky News is behind this four-part investigation into the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006. The ex-KGB spy was in the piano bar of London’s five-star Millennium Hotel when the highly radioactive Polonium-210 was dropped into his cup of green tea by two secret agents.
But he wasn’t the only one affected. Moscow correspondent Diana Magnay juxtaposes Litvinenko’s life with that of pianist Derek Conlon, who was playing in the bar that day.
Where to start: Episode one sets the scene.
Real life cases of people faking their own deaths – and their motives for doing so – are explored across nine episodes of this intriguing podcast. The practice is more common than you might think.
In 2001, fans of internet star Kaycee Nicole began to uncover the lies behind her death from leukemia. In 1974, a British MP who had vanished while swimming off a Miami beach was discovered and arrested. And, nearly a century after radical socialist Grace Oakeshott was presumed drowned, her great-granddaughter of her in New Zealand realized her identity of her.
The pseudocides are only part of the story – what makes this podcast so interesting are the human stories behind them.
Where to start: In The Curious Case of the Minute’s Silence, a footballer discovers his teammates have bizarrely faked his death in a motorbike accident. A Spotify-exclusive.
Killer Book Club
This may sound like the latest Richard Osman novel but in fact it’s a true story, explored by documentary maker Gillian Pachter. Gillian is American but the story takes place in the strange, privileged world of an English boys school where the victim Peter Farquhar first met his killer.
His former pupil Benjamin Field was convicted of his murder in 2019 after admitting to secretly drugging the retired English teacher. Gillian attempts to discover both of their true characters as well as investigating the events that led to Farquhar’s death.
Where to start: Episode one sets the scene by visiting the quiet country village where Peter Farquhar lived and ran an exclusive book club. Available exclusively on Audible.
What Makes a Killer
How did Stephen Port manage to lure four young men to their deaths on dating app Grindr before police realized they were looking for a single culprit? Why did ‘Night Killer’ Richard Ramirez terrorize California, murdering people in their homes?
This podcast aims – and partially succeeds – in tracing serial killers’ descent into murder through interviews with forensic experts, witnesses and police. But it’s the heartwrenching conversations with family members that makes it more than just a fairly cold exploration of events.
Where to start: The podcast looks at cases all over the world so begin with the Stephen Port episode if you want something closer to home.
Listening to the Dead
Prime Suspect author Lynda LaPlante fronts this absorbing exploration of forensic techniques in solving crimes. With 33 novels and 150 hours of TV to her name, she has spent many hours researching police procedure and such of her experiences as her are interspersed with interviews with experts.
These are conducted by CSI Cass Sutherland, a long-time adviser of Lynda’s, and cover everything from fiber analysis to how the discovery of DNA transformed the entire field.
Where to start: Pollen expert Prof Patricia Wiltshire was working in the archeology department at University College London when she started being called in to help solve murders including the dreadful Soham case in 2002.
Uncover: Escaping NXIVM
The bizarre sex cult masquerading as a marketing coaching company is much better known now than when journalist Josh Bloch released this podcast in 2018. Since then many disturbing details have been brought to light in a major US trial and hit Netflix documentary The Vow.
But it’s worth going back to Uncover to hear the story of NXIVM former advocate and escapee Sarah Edmundson as discovered and reported by her old school friend. As revelation follows revelation – weird branding rituals, an apparent pyramid scheme, a secret men-only group whose members were encouraged to blame women for their problems – Josh struggles to reconcile the ex-classmate who fled the cult fearing for her family with the NXIVM senior figure who financially benefited and recruited others to join.
Where to start: At the beginning.
Do you have a favorite podcast you’d like us to review? Let’s us know in the comments.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.