True crime podcasts have become so popular, they figure as plot points in a few forthcoming works of crime fiction.
On the first page of Conviction (Mulholland, June), Denise Mina’s main character, Anna McLean, an Edinburgh housewife, describes the format’s appeal: “A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything.” Anna’s marriage to a wealthy lawyer is in the doldrums, and podcasts keep her entertained as she ambles through her day.
As it turns out, Anna is not her real name, and when a new true crime podcast raises ghosts from her past, she’s forced to go on the run. Mina’s previous novel, The Long Drop, was deemed an “outstanding standalone” in PW’s starred review and won the McIlvanney for best Scottish crime book in 2017. The author cites the podcasts Dirty John and Crime Junkie as among the inspirations behind Conviction.
“Podcasts and fiction are a natural fit, because both rely on the power of the audience’s imagination,” says Emily Giglierano, Mina’s editor at Mulholland. “Visual media like TV shows and documentary films can so easily be too intense, in the case of crime-scene photos, or too cheesy, in the case of dramatic reenactments.”
A podcast producer drives the plot of Alison Gaylin’s Never Look Back (Morrow, July), the three-time Edgar nominee’s follow-up to 2017’s If I Die Tonight. Twenty-something Quentin Garrison believes a more than 40-year-old murder spree that impacted his family is to blame for his unhappy childhood. His podcast, Closure, is intended as a personal look at how the killings continue to reverberate in the lives of the survivors and their descendants. Instead, it turns into a mystery after he uncovers evidence that one of the murderers may still be alive.
Gaylin, who describes herself as an ardent fan of true crime podcasts, says that S-Town—in which host Brian Reed traveled to Alabama to investigate a murder and became enmeshed in the life of a local man—was a particular influence on her new book. Speaking of her main character, she says, “Like Brian Reed, he starts out somewhat removed and cynical, then moves deeper and deeper into the story he’s covering, until he becomes an integral character himself.”
In Trust Me When I Lie (Poisoned Pen, Aug.), another fictional producer, Jack Quick, is eager to cash in on the “new wave of true crime documentaries,” as debut novelist Benjamin Stevenson writes in the first chapter. Jack records a podcast about what he believes is a flimsy case against a convicted killer, which soon becomes the basis for a TV series.
While editing video for the season finale, Jack spies a piece of evidence investigators missed that contradicts the case he’s been building. Rather than tell the police—and risk ruining his already-filmed final episode—he keeps his finding a secret, and the accused murderer is released. When another body turns up shortly after, Jack is afraid he may have freed a killer.
Stevenson found inspiration for his story in the docu-series Making a Murderer and The Jinx—not so much in their content, says M.J. Johnston, assistant editor at Poisoned Pen parent company Sourcebooks, but in the role of the behind-the-scenes players who structured the narrative.
“Now that we’re seeing the consequences of this trend—real cases being influenced by journalists, podcasters, everyday people—it makes sense for us to start deconstructing it in fiction,” Johnston says.