The Criminal podcast & 5 more great crime podcasts

Our new monthly Pod People column, casting a closer eye over our favourite series, kicks off with Phoebe Judge's Criminal

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 18 Aug 2017

A true crime series out of North Carolina sounds pretty gnarly, right? You're probably picturing Southern-fried, red-necked, blood-soaked, squeal-like-a-pig mayhem. Or maybe you're thinking of a measured, thoughtful podcast about how crime is a response to structural inequity, subsequently reinforced by a fundamentally wrong-headed justice system? Then again, perhaps you're thinking of nothing at all, because you're essentially devoid of any imagination or insight?

If that middle description fits you best, then the Criminal podcast might be of interest. Every episode takes on a particular crime or a criminal, but the gory details are never really the focus. The crimes aren't the ends here, they're the means to delve into the more interesting stuff surrounding them: the social and historical forces behind them, their impact, the US justice system, prejudice, power, corruption and lies.

Criminal doesn't shy away from bloody brutality, but there's something about presenter Phoebe Judge's calm delivery that makes even the most gruesome descriptions seem justifiable. She's clearly a superb broadcaster and journalist, so it would be superficial to focus on something as inconsequential as her voice. But, yeah, we're going to do it anyway – Judge's voice is probably the best thing about America. It's wondrously smooth with the subtlest of Southern twangs, at once alluring and authoritative.

In episode 27 (No Place Like Home, which you can hear in the player below), her reporting and presenting deliver a tale that meanders to some flat-out astonishing places. It starts with an interview with a fairly typical white-collar fraudster describing his descent into debt, deceit and imprisonment. His first day in prison takes a startling turn when he's greeted by a cheery wave from an old lady with no fingers. It turns out that he's serving his time in a building that is part-correctional facility, part-leper colony.

Yes, an actual 21st century leper colony. Well, it's a 21st century leper colony inasmuch as it exists temporally in 2017, but for the residents – some of whom haven't seen the outside world in 50 years – this peculiar pocket of rural Louisiana could be stuck in any time period since the Reconstruction. The episode meanders some more, taking in the relationships between the residents and prisoners, and the bureaucratic incompetence (or is it apathy?) that prolongs the colony's existence.

Eventually it settles, as Criminal often does, on the human tragedy at the bottom of it all. We've already given away far too many of the episode's surprises so we won't go into too much more detail, but the story ends with an interview of extraordinary pathos and poignancy. It's not gnarly.

5 more great crime podcasts

1) Last Podcast on the Left: Now this is gnarly. A never-knowingly-tasteful dive into the horrors of humanity with three American comedians/serial killer obsessives. 

2) Serial: Probably the most downloaded podcast of all time (apparently these things are hard to measure), the investigation into Hae Min Lee's death is gripping, but presenter Sarah Koenig's examination of her own assumptions and insecurities is equally fascinating. 

3) Ear Hustle: Recorded inside San Quentin prison and yet, miraculously, not relentlessly grim. You still wouldn't want to live there. 

4) Sword and Scale: If you enjoy waking up in the middle of the night screaming, then this might be the podcast for you. Lots of audio footage of real crimes give Sword and Scale a shot of authenticity. 

5) They Walk Among Us: For evidence that Americans do true crime better, give this British alternative a whirl. Rarely has mass murder seemed so dull. Fantastic sound production though.