Intrigue: The Ratline, Reviewed

Plus: The Laundromat drops tomorrow (maybe!)

Intrigue: The Ratline is definitely the A-listiest of all the pods I’ve listened to during this project. First, it covers one of the most famous mass murderers in recent memory, the Nazi party. (Who? Weekly listeners will surely agree that Nazis are a “them” in every sense of the word.) But before you write this BBC-produced pod off as less Oxygen and more History Channel -- as I did, to be honest, when I first heard about the show -- you should know that there is indeed an unexpected murder mystery at the heart of the show, one that made me want to keep listening even after nine-plus hours in the car.

In addition to the star power of the Nazis, we have a couple recognizable voices on the show. Its host is a big name lawyer named Philippe Sands, who you might not know if you’re not into international tribunals and the prosecution of genocide, but if you are, he’s a pretty big deal. Sands is investigating the disappearance and death of Otto von Wächter, a high-ranking Nazi official who Sands believes to have been responsible for the orders that killed not just Sands’s ancestors, but scores of other Jews. As part of his investigation, he’s befriended Horst, von Wächter’s now-elderly son, who has allowed Sands access to his family archives, including letters between his parents. Those letters are reenacted by, get this, Laura Linney and Stephen Fry.

Doesn’t it sound like I’m recounting a weird dream? But there’s more. In the middle of the investigation, as Sands is trying to figure out how von Wächter escaped prosecution, he consults his friend and neighbor who he says was engaged in British intelligence during WW II AND HAPPENS TO BE MF-ING JOHN LE CARRÉ.

Even if you’re not a history buff, you get sucked into the story, which is wild -- even by spy-vs-spy, post WWII Europe standards. There’s CIA stuff, Nazi hunters from the DoJ, and corrupt Catholic priests. OK, scratch that “weird dream” line from the last graf. This podcast is a Stefon sketch. It has everything.

If you like your podcasts freewheeling, spontaneous, and idiosyncratic, Intrigue: The Ratline might not be to your taste, as it’s slickly-produced, next-level stuff. This is more like an “audio feature” than a run-and-gun investigation, as you might expect from the Beeb. However, Sands (and, oddly, Horst) keep this podcast from feeling like pure entertainment, and I mean that in the best possible way. Though this show feels marquee-level big time, there’s still a heart and soul to it that goes beyond “oh, man, here’s another crazy Nazi story.” Sands allows you to feel the humanity of all of the players -- even the Nazis -- without letting anyone off the hook. It’s deftly done, and a true example of how you can still tell tales from a well-worn era, if you approach the topic with the right angle. You can listen to Intrigue: The Ratline here. -- EB

What I’m reading from my hotel room in Elko, Nevada:

  • “Reruns of Unsolved Mysteries reveal the Bay Area’s weirdest crimes.” [SF Chronicle] My friend Beth Spotswood scored a coveted gig as a columnist for the Chron a couple years ago, and now she gets to write about whatever she wants. Last week, that was her obsession with Unsolved Mysteries, a topic I think many Best Evidence readers can relate to.

  • ‘White Boy Rick’ scheduled for early Florida prison release.” [The Detroit News] I don’t know why I’ve never watched the feature film based on Richard Wershe Jr., a teen FBI agent turned Detroit drug dealer who’s been in jail for the last 30 years, and will be released on October 26, 2020. Is the movie good; should I check it out?

  • “'Panama Papers' law firm sues Netflix over film based on scandal.” [Reuters] At issue is The Laundromat, which Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, the subject of the movie, says portrays them as “ruthless uncaring lawyers who are involved in money laundering, tax evasion, bribes and/or other criminal conduct.” The movie is set to drop on Netflix tomorrow, and the legal effort is intended to stop its release.

What is this thing? This should help.

Follow The Blotter @blotterpresents on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and subscribe to The Blotter Presents via the podcast app of your choice. You can also call us any time at 919-75-CRIME.

The Blotter Presents, Episode 116: The DNA Of Murder and Direct Appeal

Plus: Broken Harts, reviewed

The main topic of this week’s episode of The Blotter Presents is Paul Holes’ new Oxygen joint. The show’s called The DNA Of Murder, which, can I say, makes no sense. Did they maybe mean “the ABCs” and got confused? ANYWAY, Sarah and guest Mike Dunn take a look at the show, which was presumably spurred by Holes’ headline-making work on the Golden State Killer case.

Oxygen put the episode Sarah and Mike discussed on YouTube (that’s it above), so there’s no barrier to your watching it -- but must you? Sarah rolls her eyes at tropey BS like slo-mo Holes, and both express misgivings over the unsupported assertions made by the show. In the end, nothing much gets solved, so you kind of have to wonder what the point is. You can hear Sarah and Mike’s full conversation on The DNA Of Murder here. -- EB

Now it’s Sarah and Mike’s turn to take a crack at the Direct Appeal podcast. I was just lukewarm on it when I reviewed it in May, and I was interested in seeing if it had grown more even in its later episodes. Based on their conversation on the podcast, it sounds like we had a lot of similar complaints, including irritation with how frequently its hosts remind us that they are unbiased. (If you have to keep announcing it…) The case itself, of alleged “Suitcase Killer” Melanie McGuire, is an interesting subject, but the show has structural issues that make it a tough (and, at times, dubious-feeling) listen. -- EB

I can’t believe that of all the podcasts I’m bingeing for this mini-project, Broken Harts is the first one produced by women. Isn’t that odd, especially given how female-skewed this genre is? In any case, after listening to Broken Harts in its entirety, I can’t imagine a better group of folks to present this story, the recent case of Jennifer and Susan Hart, who investigators believe intentionally drove themselves and their six children off a Northern California cliff.

Like many folks, I was initially fascinated by this case, and every time I saw a story in it come through my RSS reader, I opened the tab to read more. Then one day, I stopped. The story made me feel bad, I realized, and left me with that same sick feeling I get after a couple minutes on Twitter. Via email, Best Evidence subscriber Margaret H. said that she “gobbled” the pod “like Pringles,” and that made sense to me, too -- the story is so so compelling, but it’s also sickening, and it’s made even more so by the lack of accountability or real, solid answers in the case.

The show’s hosts are Justine Harman and Elisabeth Egan, both of whom approach the case with compassion (a bit too much compassion for some listeners’ tastes, they acknowledge in its second-to-most-recent episode). But it was field reporter Lauren Smiley who hit me hardest in the gut, and not just because she and I are socially acquainted*. Her personal engagement in the case is impossible not to let break your heart, a bit, especially in the final update episode.

I’m paraphrasing, but at one point in the meticulously reported-out and researched pod, Smiley says that this is a case where everyone sees something of themselves in it. This is true for me -- it was impossible not to think about my sister’s six kids, my own status as a voluntary birth mother, and my bias against any bad news regarding same-sex parents. I’m sure others key off different notes in the very complicated case, which involves issues of abuse, race (and racial insensitivity and worse), and social media.

It’s that last part that is the focus of my only real criticism: the show’s reliance on Jennifer Hart’s Facebook posts. Again and again her posts -- which, of course, depict an idyllic blended family -- are read to us, and more than once it’s suggested that the demands of maintaining a perfect social-media persona were one of the factors in the family’s death. Perhaps the endless status updates felt less repetitive when you listened to the show as it aired, a week at a time. But when binged, I got pretty “I get it, guys, people paint a rosy picture of their lives on social media I AM NOT NEW” within the first few episodes.

This is a painstaking, thorough podcast, and I honestly cannot imagine the resources that went into creating it. This thing must have cost a mint, but it was money well spent. This is not a fun podcast to listen to, nor does it contain the twists, turns, and mysterious revelations you might be looking for in a listen. But I did come away from it with a far greater understanding -- in both a facts and feelings way -- of the case, and for that I’m grateful that you guys picked it for me. -- EB

*Even that’s an overstatement -- we know a lot of the same folks, have been at the same parties, and I think we’ve bought each other rounds a couple times. I probably haven’t seen her in a decade, though. I just wanted to disclose the tenuous connection.

Thursday on Best Evidence: I’m thinking about giving myself a break from dead families and swapping podcasts, listening to Intrigue: The Ratline today and Black Hands tomorrow (instead of vice versa, as initially planned). I’m sure you understand!

What is this thing? This should help.

Follow The Blotter @blotterpresents on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and subscribe to The Blotter Presents via the podcast app of your choice. You can also call us any time at 919-75-CRIME.

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