The holiday season can be a saccharine overload – consider the case of heiress Sunny von Bulow, who fell into a comatose state from which she’d never wake following a 1982 Christmas celebration. Authorities accused her husband Claus of attempting to murder her by injecting her with insulin. Claus maintained that Sunny had, like so many of us during the holiday festivities, merely overindulged – in her case with an eggnog/barbiturate cocktail.
One jury found Claus guilty. Another found him innocent. Sunny died, still in a coma, in 2008. A very good movie, Reversal of Fortune, was made about the whole thing. It’s a much better movie than Love Actually, Miracle on 34th Street, or any other Christmas movie I can think of except maybe Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Art by Jim Cooke.
The holiday season is upon us, and with it a whole host of heartwarming holiday entertainment. If the adjective “heartwarming” makes your blood run cold, may I suggest that you take advantage of any holiday free time this year by catching up on some of the best true crime that 2017 had to offer?
Mommy Dead and Dearest
Erin Lee Carr, who also directed the fascinating and wildly upsetting Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, turns her attention here to one of the weirdest true crime stories ever committed to film or print. Like a true life What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mommy Dead and Dearest rises above the easier, camp elements of this twisted mother/daughter story with in-depth interviews and a core of empathy.
Three women investigate the unsolved 1969 murder of their teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik, in this gripping, seven-part Netflix docuseries.
The Murder of Laci Peterson
This documentary series from A&E is a reexamination of the Laci Peterson’s murder in 2002. It isn’t likely that you will come away convinced that Scott Peterson is innocent, but you may reconsider the way you understand the narrative of the case.
American Vandal doesn’t really belong on this list because it isn’t true crime in the sense that it isn’t actually “true”. However, the series (just picked up for a second season by Netflix) does such an amazing job of skewering the conventions of the true crime docu-series – moody music over dramatic drone footage intro, meticulous crime scene recreations, a relatable and self-doubting guide – that it is a true must-see. But its real accomplishment is that American Vandal becomes so much more than satire. I really wanted to know: WHO DREW THE DICKS?
This scripted Netflix series based on John Douglas’ 1995 book about his career as an FBI criminal profiler plays with the conventions of a procedural and tempers its metallic visual style with dark wit. Bonus points for basing a main character on Dr Ann Wolbert Burgess, a psychologist who worked closely with the FBI in the creation of the field of profiling and who was largely written out of Douglas’ account.
‘The Girl Detectives’
At the University of Pittsburgh, a student club of amateur detectives is solving real life cold cases and subverting popular notions about women and the recent true crime boom.
‘The Girl From Plainville’
A nuanced look at the “texting-suicide” trial of Michelle Carter. Is the teenager responsible for the suicide of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy? This piece sets up a lot of the questions about the case that I suspect we’ll be asking ourselves for years to come.
‘The Bizarre True Story of the Neighbourhood Scuffle that Left Rand Paul with Six Broken Ribs’
When I saw this headline pop up on Twitter, I clapped my hands in childish glee. This is the story of a senator, a retired ophthalmologist, and more intrigue than one gated neighbourhood in Bowling Green, KY could contain.
‘The True, Twisted Story of Amityville Horror’
The “true story” behind one of America’s most famous haunted houses and the various demons – paranormal and (usually) otherwise – that possess everyone involved with it.
‘Bro, I’m Going Rogue: The Wall Street Informant Who Double-Crossed the FBI’
A contender for Best Headline of the Year, this Bloomberg Businessweek feature details the escapades of a low-life informant living the high life under the FBI’s not-so-watchful eye.
‘How Accusing a Powerful Man of Rape Drove a College Student to Suicide’
A wrenching account of a young woman who, after being sexually assaulted, took all the necessary steps to report the crime to the authorities. She did everything she was supposed to do. So why did she wind up killing herself?
The Last Podcast on the Left: Episodes 285-287 on Norwegian Black Metal
Mixing comedy and true crime is no easy task, but it works for the guys from Last Podcast on the Left because of their meticulous research inspired by earnest intellectual curiosity. This definitive three-parter on the Norwegian Black Metal scene and related church burnings of the early ’90s is by turns gross, terrifying, absurd, hilarious and insightful.
I listened to the podcast before I read the article (which is also excellent) and I’m glad I went in blind. This has all the trappings of a slickly produced true crime podcast but somehow manages to be totally surprising. It’s like the most complex and disturbing episode of Real Housewives ever.
As a native Rhode Islander I was predisposed to love this podcast which covers the parallel careers of crime boss Raymond Patriarca and Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci – both of whom were criminals ruling over the smallest state in the US. While at times it indulges a bit in mafia nostalgia, on the whole, it’s a fascinating look at a little known chapter in this history of La Cosa Nostra.
You Must Remember This: Dorothy Stratten (Dead Blondes Episode 13)
The entire Dead Blondes season of You Must Remember This was breathtaking in scope and execution, but host Karina Longworth essentially indicts the entire concept of the male gaze in this episode devoted to Dorothy Stratten and the various men who treated her short life as a commodity to be bought, sold and disposed of.