Criminal podcast, review: These skilfully shaded crime cases are such a guilty pleasure

Criminal shares Serial's interest in crime, easy delivery, clever production and fascination with storytelling

Fiona Sturges@FionaSturges
Thursday 02 April 2015 00:03

Not long ago a friend told me she'd found the answer to the Serial-shaped hole in her life. It had arrived in the form of Criminal, a monthly US podcast that actually existed before Serial, and which now appears to fulfil the same requirement with its nuanced depictions of real-life crime.

Naturally I was sceptical. So often we podcast junkies are promised the earth and yet delivered shoddy imitations of more superior shows, often with lower budgets and even lower IQs.

This isn't Serial's fault, of course. What is its fault is that listeners have developed higher standards. Serial may have lasted just 12 episodes but it raised the bar for podcasting both in terms of quality and listening figures (reaching around 1.5 million downloads per episode). In short, we've come to expect something better.

Luckily, Criminal is something better. The series was launched in late 2013 by the producers Lauren Spohrer and Eric Mennel, and the presenter Phoebe Judge. Their past radio credits include All Things Considered, The Story and – why, of course, – This American Life, the wellspring from which so much high-quality US radio has emerged. Episodes rarely go over 20 minutes, which makes it perfect for discerning yet time-poor listeners.

It's not really fair to compare Criminal to Serial, not least because the budget is smaller, the stories are more sparingly told and its tension isn't based on finding out who did it as, more often that not, we already know. What it does have in common, along with an interest in crime, is the same easy delivery, clever production and a fascination with storytelling.

Billed as "stories of people who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle", Criminal deals with a different case in each episode, and tells of investigation that are usually resolved or at least very much closed.

Past episodes have told of a couple manufacturing counterfeit banknotes with inkjet printers, Venus flytrap thefts, the true life of Raymond Chandler and early web hackers.

Another involved the shooting of a young black woman and mother of 10, Johnnie Mae Chappell, on the side of the road in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1984.

Spohrer's own father, Robert, a lawyer, now represents the family and was interviewed by his daughter in the course of her research.

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The latest episode, Final Exit, was an interview with Fran Schindler, an ex-nurse whom Judge described as "one of the most surprising people I've ever met". The seventysomething Schindler is an "exit guide". This means that she sits with people who have made the decision to kill themselves and keeps them company as they do it. She has, she said, been present at the deaths of around 30 people.

"I do nothing," she said. "I do not touch anything. I do not bring them anything. I sit with them because I believe nobody should every have to die alone. We do not come into this world alone and we should not have to leave it alone."

What Schindler is doing is within the law – rather than assisting, she is merely present – but that hasn't stopped the FBI lurking and, on occasion, bringing her and her fellow exit guides in for questioning.

In interrogating her they probably discovered what we did. Far from a Grim Reaper figure, Schindler was a charming woman with a clear moral compass, enormous compassion and astonishing courage. I'm glad I met her.

Twitter: @FionaSturges

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