Hello, my loyal true crime readers! I’m excited to present a guest podcast review by Barney Doyle. Barney was an award-winning newspaper reporter who left journalism to become a cop. He has spent more than 14 years in law enforcement (and counting).
As always, thanks for reading! ~ Christine
October of 2016 was an anxious time for old Barney Doyle. I was still aging Barney Doyle at the time, not yet fully old, and I was on my way to investigate a murder—a job I wasn’t certain I was qualified to handle. It was my dream job and I had worked a long time to get there. I had extensive training in the classroom and in the field. I had solved a lot of crimes other than murders. I had guidance from experienced homicide detectives. I had a bunch of equipment and knew how to use most of it. But when the moment came to respond to my first murder, I was suddenly ultra-aware of how important the job was and how many things I had failed at in my life. I wasn’t a perfect student in school, I struck out a lot in Little League, I frequently needed two attempts at parallel parking, and I was such a shoddy landscaper that my wife’s dog was ashamed to be seen pooping in our yard. I wasn’t a complete failure in life by any means, but I was an occasional failure. And the job of a murder detective seemed way too important for an occasional failure.
I worked in a rural state and it was a four-hour drive in the evidence truck to get to the crime scene. I had learned about podcasts a few months earlier and killed a lot of time on the road listening to sports podcasts. On a whim, I decided to search out crime podcasts. To my surprise, there were dozens (now hundreds). I tried two or three but couldn’t get into them. I don’t remember the titles, but I seem to recall that one was recorded in a busy truck stop restroom and the other was hosted by a man who, if he wasn’t a serial killer, seemed like he wanted to become one. I was about to give up and go back to basketball podcasts when I decided to gamble on a longshot podcast with what seemed like a terrible name.
Four hours later my anxiety was gone, and I was eternally grateful for Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, a pair of excitable and quick-witted true crime enthusiasts who talked way too much about their cats, but had what I could only describe as a sincere and wholesome fascination with all manner of heinousness.
In just five years, My Favorite Murder has gone from an obscure niche podcast to a mainstream cultural phenomenon. If you have any interest in true crime stories in 2021, it is a virtual certainty that you are aware of the show. The most fervent fans are so obsessive as to refer to themselves as a fan cult. And the detractors are just as passionate (as you would expect from any show as popular as My Favorite Murder).
I am not in the fan cult, but I don’t think the criticisms do a fair job of appreciating what the show actually is. My Favorite Murder is not journalism. It is also definitely not academic. My Favorite Murder is not quite horror. And it isn’t exactly a comedy either. My Favorite Murder is a narration of the thoughts of a community of people who are, like the show’s hosts, bravely confronting the wickedness of the world with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a proper perspective of what actually matters in these true crime stories. And you can’t quantify something like that by pointing out the occasional insignificant facts they get wrong or quibbling about a tangent that went on a little too long.
I recently went back and listened to the first episode again. The hindsight of knowing how it all worked out, for me and the show, made the memory of that first listen a little more special. Karen and Georgia talked about how a mutual acquaintance had actually climbed “the staircase,” and Georgia dismissed the absurdity of the owl theory out of hand. A less bold show would have felt compelled to explain the Kathleen Peterson saga for the listeners, or at the very least explain what the owl theory was. But Karen and Georgia just plowed ahead, confident that the audience they were seeking was already versed in the foundations of true crime and would appreciate the connection that comes with shorthand communication and communal experience. It felt like an intimate connection in 2016 because it didn’t seem possible that there were so many people who were both fascinated by criminal investigations and certain that Michael Peterson was guilty. Now knowing just how large and intelligent the true crime audience actually is, the connection feels less intimate but still meaningful.
Georgia covered the JonBenét Ramsey murder on her portion of the first show. As you would expect trying to cover such a complicated investigation in such a short amount of time, Georgia was light on the details. She was also certain that the Ramseys were guilty, a position I don’t really agree with (read Reckless Speculation About Murder to find out why, and send all hate mail to my email address at the top of the page). And in typical My Favorite Murder fashion, she seemed to get a couple of minor details wrong.
But none of that mattered. Georgia told a great story and did so with compassion and enthusiasm. That was the formula for My Favorite Murder from day one. It isn’t a heavily researched podcast, but it’s also not where you should go if you are in the mood for in-depth research (for that, check out my favorites: The True Crime Files, True Crime Garage, and Morbidology). It’s where you go to hear an interesting story told well, with a healthy dose of commentary, from two complete strangers who feel like your friends.
There won’t be a Georgia Hardstark school of criminal investigation, but I do feel like her approach to these stories is a meaningful exercise in my line of work. To me, Georgia and Karen represent the most important and neglected component of the criminal justice system: modern jurors. They are more savvy than jurors of the past in the ways of forensic science and police procedures. But the most important thing to them is still a story. They need a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need the characters clearly defined. They need to understand the motivations and the emotions of the people involved. Forensic science can be incorporated into it, but there still has to be a story so they can evaluate whether or not it is true. When you are in the middle of an investigation, it is entirely too easy to look at your case file as a scoreboard with point totals over your different suspects: DNA at the scene, three points; a suspiciously timed life insurance policy, two points; an alibi witness, subtract a point; etc. It’s tempting to just total the points and call the case solved. But that doesn’t work in a trial. If you can’t tell a Georgia-style story of how and why a murder happened then I don’t think you will be able to convince a jury that it is solved. Modern juries are too sophisticated and too skeptical to be moved by a rote list of facts that don’t fit into a single cohesive narrative.
Karen covered the then-unsolved Original Night Stalker/East Area Rapist case and it was fascinating to remember all that has happened since 2016. The great Michelle McNamara, who knew more about the crimes than the murderer himself probably did, died shortly after the episode’s release. But in a rare happy ending in the world of true crime, the killer was actually identified, charged, and convicted in 2018.
Karen Kilgariff’s work on My Favorite Murder is proof that she is one of the funniest comedians alive today. Because so many of the show’s fans have experienced trauma in their lives, and because Karen and Georgia are just decent people, the show bends over backwards to be inclusive and kind. That’s not an easy feat for a murder podcast and doesn’t leave a ton of room to be funny. But Karen always is. Oftentimes the easiest laugh you can get is a mean-spirited barb at an easy target. Kilgariff never goes that route and yet still always finds a way to be funny. As an insensitive oaf who frequently blurts out the first amusing thing that pops in my head (then usually regrets it), I marvel at a brain like Kilgariff’s that can not only generate a hundred funny ideas on the fly but can also filter them in a way that will make the audience laugh without being cruel. That she chooses to focus her considerable gifts on true crime stories is fortunate for those of us who are fascinated with true crime but don’t want to take it too seriously.
Back in 2016, I made it through about three episodes during my first listen before I got to the crime scene. The distraction kept my nerves in check and I am happy to say that I didn’t botch my first murder investigation. In fairness, I was assisting a more seasoned detective who wouldn’t have let me screw up. And it was a pretty straight-forward domestic homicide. But I couldn’t help but think about how Georgia would have fawned over the victim, who was a beautiful young single mother and a wonderful human being. Or how Karen would have spiced up the story of the SWAT team busting down the suspect’s door as he sat on the couch feeling sorry for himself and drafting a suicide note. In moments like that one, and all of the others that have followed in my career, I take some comfort in knowing that Karen and Georgia wouldn’t bother with journalistic niceties when telling the story. They would unabashedly celebrate the victim while ruthlessly scorning the killer. And a proper tribute like that can be a powerful thing in the face of so much tragedy
I don’t listen to every episode anymore, but I still like to check in regularly to hear how the various pets in their lives are doing or find out which British police procedural shows Karen is obsessed with. I am not the show’s target audience, and I am okay with that. It’s always going to be a show by women and predominantly for women. But it’s done so well that even a crusty old cop like me can enjoy it. And every now and then, when the demands of the job start to wear on Old Barney’s nerves, there are few things more soothing on a long road trip than listening to Karen and Georgia tell a few murder stories.