Thursday, May 12, 2016

Criminal Investigation

A few weeks back, I reviewed (unfavorably) the podcast series Sword and Scale, which played fast and loose with the "true" part of "true crime." Fortunately, in leaving that podcast behind, I immediately found another that was much more to my liking: Criminal.

Criminal was created by Phoebe Judge, Eric Mennel, and Lauren Spohrer -- a trio of (in their words) "full-time radio people" looking for something fun to do "when we go home at night." Judge is the regular host, but all three have been featured in different episodes of the podcast. The common thread between episodes is stated succinctly in that title: the series deals with all sorts of criminal activities and their perpetrators. But a wide variety of material fits under that umbrella, from lightweight to deadly serious, crimes both recent and historical, tales oddball and mainstream.

The eclectic mix is part of Criminal's charm; you never know what to expect from the next episode. You get the story of a professional soccer player who solved a murder that the police detectives could not. You get a glimpse inside the strange world of illegal Venus Flytrap harvesting for black market sale. You hear the unexpected tale of a low security prison inside a leper colony. You follow the hunt for a serial rare book thief.

But there is one recurring theme that Criminal keeps coming back to: sympathy for crime victims. Sometimes the criminals are the villains, as in the case of a man who for decades was conned and extorted by the same individual. Other times, the system itself is the villain, as in episodes about the (in)effectiveness of lie detector tests, or how juries often scrutinize victims more than those accused. And the show doesn't shy from sometimes showing police themselves as the villains, as in the cases of a transgender woman mistreated by the cops, and a man shot by the police who misentered his car's license plate number. (But lest you think the show is anti-cop, consider the episode devoted to the bond between an officer and his canine partner, or the episode about a retired policeman still striving to right an injustice 50 years later.)

Criminal always features compelling interviews, intriguing subjects, and skillful reporting. And it's also very concise. Each episode is around 20-25 minutes long, making it the perfect length for my drive to or from work. And while I may be sad when I very quickly work my way through its 40 episodes to date, the quality will make it worth the two week wait for each new episode. (So far, only one or two installments have struck me as "duds.")

In short, if you like podcasting and/or true crime stories, Criminal will be right up your alley. I give it an A-.

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