This absorbing new true-crime podcast is the next ‘Serial’ and ‘S-Town’
From the music cues and restless fascination with the everyday macabre that brought you Serial and S-Town, comes Dirty John, a new podcast by veteran Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard and fledgling podcast network Wordery.
A story of a West Coast conman who deceives his way into a marriage with a wealthy interior designer, episode one starts out pretty brutally, as they all do, then pulls back: from the cold itemisation of a brutal murder to the story of this aging frat-boy who targets lonely old women. Debra Newell – a 59-year-old four-times-divorced entrepreneur with a large family – thinks her chances of happiness are over until John arrives on the scene in a whirlwind romance that has her loved ones panicking.
The titular ‘Dirty’ John’s tales of front-line medicine in Iraq and talent as a freelance anesthesiologist (all totally made-up, of course) are as intoxicating as his broad shoulders and square jaw. He is a con artist in the classic mould. The podcast’s music – which can be a little elevator muzak at times, but is mostly fine – draws you on through the story with breezy aplomb, beckoning you deeper into the tale, making you half forget the horror that’s unfolding even as you absorb it, until you’re hooked on a story that only gets darker and darker…
As a listener you’re left questioning the chances you give to people, the ways you let them into your life, and the damage they could do to you now they’re there. It just might make you a little wary of everyone who’s ever nice to you again and gives you an impression of what it’s like to be stranded in when it’s too late to turn back.
It can make for uncomfortable listening in the current climate of increased media coverage of abusive men: John’s behaviour is often manipulative and threatening, shutting off his target – the smart and kind Debra Newell – from her family and even turning her against them. “She’s not your aunt anymore,” John messages one of the cast in an exchange retold by Goffard in episode two. “Just ask her.”
John’s past is marred by stints in prison and he jokes about murdering Debra’s daughter when she argues with him. He talks idly of his family’s supposed mafia connections with a smile before thrusting them front-and-centre in arguments, reminding his opponent that if they wrong him they won’t even see the punishment coming. John’s power, while not only aimed at women, certainly targets them specifically: verbally attacking them one moment before switching on the superficial charm the next.
The podcast works twice over as a well-spun story of a superficially amiable fraudster who flames out under close scrutiny and a look at the way manipulation and intimidation work outside the confines of Hollywood, just a few miles down the road, in the sleepy, affluent suburbs of Los Angeles - the world capital of wellness. Dirty John is a noir-ish tale of a world where the only ones surprised are the cast. It revels in detailing the machinations of everyday monsters who destroy lives to get what they want – power, money and security – and then just blow on to the next when they’re done.
That it plays a little fast-and-loose with morality is par for the course – the ‘tease’ cold open could be considered bad taste when you remember that this isn’t a fictional crime drama TV series and is actually a vicious murder with real-world consequence. And unlike the whodunnit creep of Serial – which invited the listener to draw their own conclusions and act hobbyist detective, which millions happily did – Dirty John can’t help but blame its victims just a little, even while putting an arm around them and telling their story, at once a tale of and symptom of the systems in place that allow these crimes to take place.
The podcast swings, minute to minute, between an investigation of the power of love to obscure giant, blinking warning signs and an, at times, too-gleeful jaunt through a family torn apart by a professional criminal. The tone of the podcast is a peculiar mix of half-smirk and pensive wonder: questions like How could this happen? and Why was this allowed to happen? colour our host’s patient narration in a way that feels more Hmm, this is a little bit odd! than you’d expect from a story that we know ends in a grisly murder, but is typical of the kind of true crime podcast (let’s call them TCPs) we’ve all become obsessed with.
Its sound design, too, can be very much TCP-by-numbers – from the quirky melancholy of the theme music and the vocal fry-heavy narration to the cast of candid interviewees and out-of-the-blue adverts for luxury mattresses – but thanks to the heft of Goffard’s excellent, sprawling accompanying article (beautifully written, outstandingly reported) the podcast remains gripping throughout. Despite its flaws, Dirty John is confident in its presentation, lulling you into a sense of contentment with a story at once relatable and harrowing, knowing it has your patience in a way that television programmes simply can’t, trusting that your comfort with the TCP format will keep you hooked from the get go, allowing the story to take its time.
It’s not perfect – and the written articles are better – but for those without the inclination to pour over a non-fiction article tens of thousands of words long, Dirty John is pure water-cooler fodder: an ultimately absorbing look at the selfish cruelty of man and the lies we tell ourselves in search of happiness, doled out 40 minutes at a time.
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