No genre of storytelling is more formulaic or more exhausted than true crime


The staircase: the real story; Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley

BBC Sounds

Nothing new under the sun. Or at least that’s how it is these days, isn’t it? Movies are TV shows, comics are children’s toys. TV series are podcasts are non-fiction books are magazine articles. Radio shows are real-life stories, Twitter feeds are TV shows. Even interesting movies are remakes now. Intellectual property is king, franchises dominate the world of entertainment, and the public must ruminate on a cow with a hundred stomachs. Sunrise, sunset and nothing new to offer.

So it is with radio, and especially with true crime, the basic culture of narrative radio. No genre of storytelling is more formulaic or more exhausted. No narrative form succeeds more systematically in keeping its promises. Yet it continues. The genre has gone through what I consider to be the four stages of modern media development: it had its viral breakout moment with the first hit Serial; it became meme-ified by anthology shows like my favorite murder and The last podcast on the left; it turned into rote content with dozens of forgettable cod investigative shows until the last barrel bend was completely scraped and now it’s hit the cannibal stage, where old material is unnecessarily redone and re-exhumed again and again.

At the top of the BBC Sounds homepage these days is The staircase: the real story. It is not, however, “the real story” in the sense that it has something new or unreported to tell. Here, “the real story” is used the same way it is used on the cover of glossy magazines, where it means “the same story you’ve heard before presented in a slightly different form”.

The facts are these. In December 2001, unsuccessful novelist Michael Peterson called 911 saying his wife, Kathleen, had fallen down the stairs in their home and was unconscious. She died before help arrived. The massive amount of blood at the crime scene and Kathleen’s head wounds made Michael a suspect in her murder. With Peterson’s identity held in dramatic overlay – was he a grieving husband or a deceitful murderer? – the case has become a media circus and a constant topic of local discussion.

During the trial, it was revealed that Peterson was looking for male prostitutes online; it also emerged that a family friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, had similarly died, falling down the stairs, and that Peterson was the last person to see her alive. The jury found Peterson guilty of murder. He was later released, after an officer from the State Bureau of Investigation was found guilty of providing flawed evidence. Peterson then pleaded Alford – meaning there was evidence to convict him but he denied guilt – to manslaughter. He continues to contest his guilt.

None of that interests me in the podcast. Here is what does: The staircase: the real story is not original research. Instead, the podcast consists of reformatted interview clips taken from a previous podcast, Beyond a reasonable doubt? which explored the death of Kathleen Peterson in 18 exhaustive episodes. It is one of six podcast and radio shows that have focused on this trial, most of which draw their material from the many books written about it. It was released to piggyback on the attention HBO garnered The staircase, which is itself the most recent of 14 dramatizations and documentaries that take the death of Kathleen Peterson as its subject. As entertainment, it’s essentially worthless. But as a material artifact, it beautifully condenses the desiccation and lifelessness of our cultural moment.

It is almost the same for Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley which bills itself as “where true crime meets history”, though it ends looking so lovable you might think you’re tuned in Gardener Question Time. The show gets confused about her case and, trying to take a feminist lens for the stories of female killers, accidentally ends up half-trying to prove they’re innocent. The problem is that they don’t seem to be.

You already know the names: Lizzie Borden, who was home alone when her wealthy family was hacked to death, leaving Lizzie wealthy. Mary Ann Cotton, whose acquaintances died at an alarming rate just as she took out life insurance for them. No one quite has the heart to suggest that these women were unjustly accused, although someone bravely and improbably suggests that Lizzie Borden was tried for violating standards of female decorum. In fact, most of the women featured have managed to weaponize stereotypes of female fragility to their advantage. What you might already know, if you had already read it. Or that you may find out soon, if the inhabitant, an upcoming horror film about one of Lizzie Borden’s descendants, is coming to Netflix faster than usual.

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