Nonfiction November Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing (Sarah’s Book Shelves): This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.
I only read nonfiction nowadays, with one or two exceptions each year. So I’m a pretty poor fiction advisor, and am repeating what I did last year: if you love this book/podcast, here’s more stuff to read/listen to. These are mostly true crime; with so many podcasts in this genre it’s worthwhile to recommend good ones. (Do you know how many awful true crime podcasts are out there? For every good one there are like 12 insufferable ones. Let me help you avoid them.)
I wanted to highlight podcasts that I didn’t last year, but Last Podcast on the Left is such a constant delight that it was impossible not to include it. Ben, Marcus, and Henry tell stories of the strange and unusual, including but not limited to crime. I couldn’t care less about aliens or the supernatural, but I love their episodes on things like cryptids, high strangeness, hauntings, and all manner of spooky scariness. Their stories are massively researched and punctuated with plenty of levity.
A caveat is probably necessary: although they’ve adjusted significantly recently, it is not politically correct. They’re not crass and crude like standard shock-jock fare, but they’ve got some eyebrow-raisers, especially in older episodes. But they don’t lack sensitivity either, and they’re just so irreverently funny. It has immeasurably lightened so many of my days.
Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country, by B.J. Hollars – Henry is a proud member of the Mutual UFO Network, and as a passionate if somewhat idle MUFON investigator he loves a good UFO sighting story. This book looks at various myths around UFOS, cryptids (including the Mothman, featured in a regional monsters episode), and high strangeness in Midwestern locales with healthy skepticism and consideration of historical, cultural, and economic context, which usually leads to logical explanations. Which is how Last Podcast handles such stories too, so it’s a must-read.
Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, by Sam Brower – They recently did the history of Mormonism, including the FLDS polygamist offshoot run by pedophile creep Warren Jeffs, who Brower helped bust. They based that episode on his book (and on Under the Banner of Heaven, which I haven’t reviewed but highly recommend).
Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, by Douglas Smith – Their multi-parter on the mysterious holy man was something of a departure from their usual fare, and was partially based on this recent mythbusting biography.
In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond, by John Zada – There’s nothing I love more than Henry on a Bigfoot tangent. I never would’ve picked up a book about Sasquatch without Last Podcast, and this exploration into the cryptid legend in the Pacific Northwest includes illuminating sections about brain function and psychology, as well as Native American legend and natural history connected to supernatural beliefs.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century, by Maureen Callahan – The boys used an older book about terrifying serial killer Israel Keyes for their episodes about him (he’s made less menacing thanks to Henry’s spot-on impression of his whiny voice). I wish they’d waited to use Callahan’s book, as she tells some intriguing stories that they didn’t mention.
Which brings me to a sticky issue from an entire podcast about Keyes.
True Crime Bullsh** is named after Keyes’ request that investigators hold back details about him because of the popularity of “true crime bullshit”. But he’s dead now so he doesn’t get to decide anymore. Keyes left a heap of mysteries in his wake, like how many victims he actually had, and the extent of his methods. Now the issue: one of the creepiest details in American Predator was that Keyes might’ve gotten gastric surgery so he could go longer without eating, enabling him to travel more efficiently or spend more time burying kill kits around the country to dig up and use later. Josh Hallmark, host of this serialized ultra-deep dive, argues that it was most likely Keyes’ partner, Kimberly, who got the surgery. Twist!
This podcast is mesmerizing, if occasionally tough to follow. It’s researched to the point of getting lost in details but that’s almost understandable because there’s so much information, and the host makes an impressive effort to organize, timeline and connect dots on this thing — I can only imagine his Pepe Silvia wall. I’m not sure I’m sold on every point — I think we tend to overestimate how prolific some serial killers are because what we know is so horrifying that they seem inevitably capable of much more. But if even half this stuff is true, my god.
Read American Predator before listening, because I could imagine being completely lost here if I hadn’t read it as a foundation first.
Speaking of theories that I can’t decide whether I agree with or not, Root of Evil.
Dr. George Hodel has long been a suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. I’ve never found the Black Dahlia story all that interesting, and it’s basically a footnote to the shocking, sheer awfulness of what went on in the Hodel family. Sisters Rasha Pecoraro and Yvette Gentile are Dr. Hodel’s great-granddaughters, who trace their knotty, ugly family history in the podcast, including their mother Fauna’s troubled childhood and their complicated grandmother, Tamar Hodel. It’s a dark mess of a family story, and the Black Dahlia is just one small part of it, but they do make a convincing argument for Hodel’s involvement.
But then again, so does Piu Eatwell in Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder. She makes a persuasive case that the killer was a former mortuary assistant who knew things about the murder he shouldn’t, inserted himself into the investigation, and was connected to a room where something gruesome happened and seems it could’ve been the unknown site where Short was killed. I don’t know what to believe, but it’s interesting to see such different historical interpretations.
Caliphate is a stunning example of audio journalism. Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter covering terrorism, gets up close and personal with ISIS members, meets Yazidi girls freed from enslavement, and interviews a Canadian convert returned home whose story doesn’t add up. She was on the ground during the fall of Mosul, and her reporting is gut-wrenching and illuminating. Although this is highly informative and can be heartbreaking, she finds moments of levity as well, like recounting how she had to explain to an incredulous 911 operator that ISIS might be at her front door.
Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, by Azadar Moaveni – Moaveni reports deeply on women from the UK, Germany, Tunisia, and Syria who became radicalized and traveled to Syria to join the caliphate or undertook enforcer roles. It’s a unique and gorgeously written look at women’s reasons for joining.
The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, by Dunya Mikhail – Mikhail interviews a beekeeper in Sinjar province in Iraq who ran an escape network for Yazidi women who’d been enslaved by ISIS. His heroics, and those of others who helped, are astonishing.
The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State – The best book I’ve read on ISIS and for understanding something about theology and interpretation. What could’ve been a dry, dense study becomes readable and has its Jon Ronson-like moments when Wood interviews extremists about their basic reasoning.
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, by Souad Mekhennet – Like Callimachi, Mekhennet is a fearless badass who’s done some scary things in her work reporting on terrorism for the Washington Post. She’s also a compelling storyteller and parses her experiences meaningfully.
My favorite podcast discovery this year has been RedHanded. Brits with delightful accents Hannah and Suruthi have nailed the deeply researched-with-hilarious commentary format. They tell stories of general weirdness, like possessions, in addition to true crime, and my favorite topic: they often highlight mysterious, inexplicable or unsolved cases. I feel like these are what podcasting is best for, letting good hosts ruminate over possibilities and theories instead of just parroting stories.
They cover many lesser-known cases too, although some can be macabre or gruesome. So be warned, but their storytelling is tasteful, as far as that’s possible. Their argument is that the details are necessary for context, and they handle it respectfully and intelligently.
The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield – I found RedHanded when looking for something to listen to about North Korea after being blown away by this incredible biography of Kim Jong Un. Episode 84 addresses the oddities around Otto Warmbier’s death, and Hannah taught in South Korea so has fascinating insights into culture and relations.
Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult , by Susan Ashline – Hannah and Suruthi love creepy cult stories, and is this ever one. Ashline gives an intense narrative look at a church-turned-cult in upstate New York, enhanced by members’ obsessive documentation of their lives and indoctrination, and, sadly, the descent of some into mental illness that ends with murder.
Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood, by Julie Gregory – One episode covers the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a victim of Munchausen’s by proxy who had her mother/tormentor killed. What I love about RedHanded is how they handle nuance, and this episode is a great example of that, as they consider Gypsy’s perspective. In Sickened, Gregory hauntingly recounts her childhood as a victim of her mother’s Munchausen’s by proxy abuse.
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood – An episode called “How Not to Fake Your Death” relates the story of John Darwin, a British man who temporarily faked his death in a canoeing accident. Playing Dead looks at different cases of people who fake their deaths and the whys and hows of it, Darwin included.
To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder, by Nancy Rommelmann – RedHanded has covered multiple infamous cases of mothers who kill their children, like Darlie Routier (maybe?) and Andrea Yates. Rommelmann examines the background and psychology around Amanda Stott-Smith, a Washington mother who harmed her children during the breakup of a toxic relationship.
Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, by John Leake – Having covered another Alpine mystery and plenty of suspicious deaths, I so wish they’d do this jaw-dropping story of a Canadian hockey player who disappeared on an Austrian ski slope. His body melted out of the glacier decades later, only heightening the mystery. His parents always sensed something amiss, and journalist Leake gets close to the bottom of it with some unusual forensic analysis.
The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber – Episode 22, “How Ancestry.com Solved a 32-Year-Old Cold Case” is about the Bear Brook bodies in barrels case, a twisty-turny story whose victims were only identified this past year. (Which has its own rabbit hole of a podcast, Bear Brook.) DNA matching solved part of the mystery before these last identifications, which is the story RedHanded tells. The Skeleton Crew is a look at amateur sleuths trying to identify the missing and murdered using technological advances and databases.
Mysteries around the unidentified dead brings me to my last recommendation, Death in Ice Valley.
This BBC podcast investigates the Isdal Woman, who was found burned near Bergen, Norway in 1970. Everything about her was strange: she was memorable for being foreign at a time when not many foreigners were in Norway, she had no real identification but documentation for multiple identities, and her death was bizarre. This being the Cold War, it seems she could’ve been a spy, but so much doesn’t make sense.
Norwegian investigative journalist Marit Higraff and BBC radio documentarian Matt McCarthy explore the story as it unfolded back then, including oddities around the investigation, interview those who remember the Isdal woman or were connected to the case, and examine new evidence, coming a little closer to something about her past.
All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black – Anthropologist Black shows how human remains can confer identity, often in surprising ways (she identifies a rapist through vein patterns). She’s assisted on murder cases and at natural disasters to give people back their names.
The Spy Who Was Left Behind, by Michael Pullara – This new investigation into the mysterious murder of an American CIA chief in Soviet Georgia is fascinating, if complex. But it’s a good look at Cold War spy culture and political machinations during this surreal, confusing time.
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French – Another baffling mystery of a murder while abroad, with a similar noir feeling to the storytelling. The murder of teenager Pamela Werner in China gets murkier the more the story unfolds, and doesn’t have a straightforward resolution, but the historical context is enlightening and the writing is so engaging.
Out of Thin Air: A True Story of Impossible Murder in Iceland , by Anthony Adeane – BBC reporter Adeane tells the compelling story of two still-missing men in Iceland, with false confessions making for an even stickier case, in another unsolved crime story with an eerie northern backdrop.
Are you already familiar with any of these? What podcasts are you into lately?