Though society’s penchant for true crime is far from totally new, the genre has gathered power in recent years. We’ve got popular YouTube series, an insurmountable pile of books, household-name podcasts, and countless movies and television series—all in all, our appetite for true crime suggests we have a mystery-inclined tapeworm that’s never fully satisfied. Unfortunately, a person who likes to read and watch such things, but who isn’t a creep lacking a basic sense of decency and perspective, is always in danger of mistakenly clicking on or downloading exploitative true crime—movies, shows, books, and podcasts that have given no thought to victims or their families, that make light of death and murder, or that mindlessly celebrate the carceral system. With that in mind, we asked some of our most trusted true-crime experts, as well as members of the Slate staff, to give us their best true-crime recommendations of 2022.
This podcast begins with a Florida judge, at great risk to his professional career, telling host Gilbert King that an innocent man has been in jail for 30 years. The state refuses to let Leo Schofield go in the case of the 1987 murder of his wife, even though physical evidence at the scene is linked to a man who has been implicated in several other murders. Pulitzer Prize winner King and his research assistant, Kelsey Decker, explore the crime, not only taking apart the state’s claims, but also solving an entirely different murder case connected to the new suspect. Exquisitely written, meticulously researched, flawlessly reported, surprisingly moving, and ultimately enraging, the podcast plods through a system where prosecutors and judges will do anything to protect a conviction—even one that is demonstrably wrong. Since 2014, our own podcast, Crime Writers On … has reviewed nearly 250 podcasts. Bone Valley is not the best podcast of 2022; it’s arguably the best true-crime podcast of all time. —Rebecca Lavoie, author and co-host of the podcast Crime Writers On …
Gilbert King and Kelsey Decker’s Bone Valley is about a murderer, but its engine is the wrongful conviction of a sad-sack Floridian named Leo Schofield. The podcast is heartbreaking from bow to stern, in part because King and Decker treat their flawed, complicated subjects—Schofield as well the man who actually killed his wife—with a ferocious empathy and patience uncommon in any medium. It’s a flawless, no-frills podcast, and should be spoken of in the same breath as Madeleine Baran’s second season of In the Dark. —Elon Green, journalist and author of Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York
Rebecca Lavoie’s Slate Double Feature on The Waves and ICYMI
Rebecca Lavoie has long been an icon and voice of reason in the true-crime community.
Host of the podcasts Crime Writers On … and These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, Lavoie has also written multiple true-crime books. This year, she was on two Slate podcasts lending her expertise on some of the more problematic areas of true crime. For a general, feminist, discussion on true crime, listen to The Waves’ “Can We Love True Crime When We’re the Victims?” Then, to get a real crash course on the ups and downs of the original Serial saga, listen to ICYMI’s “Serial Didn’t Free Adnan Syed.” —Cheyna Roth, producer of Slate’s podcast The Waves
Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s
On a routine traffic stop in Saskatchewan, a Mountie recognized the driver as the priest who had abused him when he was a child. The officer beat him up, but the priest never reported the attack, and the Mountie kept the incident to himself for decades. This is the incredible opening to Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s. Even more intriguing is the fact that the Mountie was the late father of Connie Walker, the former CBC podcaster and leading voice on crimes against Indigenous people. Connie sets off to learn the identity of that priest. She also explores her own Cree family story in this study on the intergenerational trauma from Canadian residential schools like St. Michael’s. At one point, Connie is warned by an old man: “Don’t play with this.” She does not. The story she tells is somber, sympathetic, personal, and beautifully crafted. As the issue of residential school abuse is having its “George Floyd moment” in Canada, this is the perfect primer. —Kevin Flynn, author and co-host of the podcast Crime Writers On …
Death of an Artist is the podcast I could not stop recommending this year. At the center of the story is the life and work of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, who died tragically young—and very likely at the hands of another famous artist: her husband, Carl Andre. I’m not spoiling much, because this story isn’t really a whodunit, it’s about so much more than the circumstances of Mendieta’s death. It’s about the secretive and exclusive “art world”—a world that we outsiders are granted access to by host Helen Molesworth. Molesworth delivers a story that begs the listener to contemplate questions beyond the scope of this one case, while still centering the legacy of the brilliant Ana Mendieta. —Kelsey Decker, producer of the podcast Bone Valley
Sometimes the best true crime, the kind that teases out a bigger issue or conundrum of the human condition, is the kind in which the crime itself is a bit murky. This season of the Serial podcast—a collaboration between British journalism student Hamza Syed and Brian Reed, host of the podcast S-Town—aims to discover who wrote a letter purporting to outline a plot to convert Birmingham public primary schools into strict Islamic academies. The letter was considered by many to be a hoax, but who wrote it and why? And given its dubious provenance, are the real criminals those politicians and officials who used the letter to justify the firing of Muslim teachers and administrators in schools that had previously been highly rated by government agencies? Though my recommendation harbors some caveats, this season marked a return to the mystery and suspense that made Serial so addictive. —Laura Miller, Slate’s book critic
Though this actually premiered at the tail end of 2021, it’s been a favorite podcast of this year. In An Absurd Result, reporter Jule Banville tells the riveting story of everything that goes wrong after a young child is sexually assaulted in Billings, Montana, in 1987. Banville, an independent producer and journalism professor at the University of Montana, gave this story the space and time it needed, gorgeous (but not flowery) writing combined with impressive shoe-leather reporting. She left no stone unturned. Her storytelling skills combined with sweeping fact-finding reveal the heartbreaking hypocrisy of our justice system and the repeated failings of law enforcement toward both victims and the accused. If you are looking for a justice-oriented true-crime podcast as compelling as In the Dark or Bone Valley, An Absurd Result should be your next listen. —Michele Siegel, Slate Studios managing producer
This HBO miniseries investigates the brutal rape and murder of an elderly woman in small-town Nebraska, but its focus isn’t on solving the mystery of who committed that terrible crime. It isn’t even just about the six people who were wrongfully convicted and spent years in prison. The subject of Nanfu Wang’s gripping six-part story is how the town of Beatrice came to believe they were guilty, and how, eventually, many of the Beatrice Six came to believe it as well. Crime thrillers often climax with a confession, but this story starts with one, and then digs into the ways that belief can be more powerful than facts and finding the truth can be easier than convincing people to believe it. —Sam Adams, Slate senior editor
There are great journalism movies that I love watching and rewatching because they share the overall experience of what I do for a living in an honest light, but I’d never seen one so accurately relay what it’s like to be a female journalist specifically—answering phone calls while feeding the family, jotting down Netflix passwords to give the kiddo something to do when a source calls unexpectedly, diving back into work after giving birth as a way to treat postpartum depression. As I sat in the movie theater, I wondered if the non-journalists around me would find it boring, and in looking up reviews later, I learned that some people did. It’s not the sexiest job to depict honestly in a movie. But I loved that She Said included all the mundane stuff that we juggle because it sometimes feels so surreal. You’ll be on maternity leave, so sore that you’re still sitting on pillows, but willing to take work phone calls because you’re never truly “off.” You’ll have worked for months to nail a story down solid but still not be able to tell it properly because no one’s willing to go on the record. Journalism done well is often boring to behold. It’s slow and plodding and you make incremental advances. I think it bugged me to see some haters reveling in the mediocre box-office pull this movie had because I find beauty in the mundane. It’s part of what makes this job so fascinating. —Amber Hunt, journalist and co-host of the podcast Accused
Keri Blakinger’s memoir, Corrections in Ink, was a book I could not put down this year. Now an investigative reporter for the Marshall Project, Blakinger brings readers along on the harrowing journey of her arrest and nearly two-year incarceration for possession of heroin in upstate New York when she was a promising student at Cornell University. Blakinger is an extraordinary writer, and this provocative, witty, and painfully honest memoir is an empathic and urgent call to action for reforming the American carceral system. —Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and host of the podcast Bone Valley
Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt
Phoebe Zerwick’s compelling story of the wrongful conviction and exoneration and aftermath of Darryl Hunt captures in great detail and with powerful prose how Hunt came to be wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. He is among more than 3,300 people who have been wrongfully convicted in the U.S. since 1989. I know this because I am a researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations. I have written more than 2,500 summaries of wrongful convictions in the past decade. Hunt’s story is one of courage and tragedy. The book is a haunting portrayal of the criminal justice system and its impact on the innocent. —Maurice Possley, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist
In a sense, the exceptional Scoundrel, by Sarah Weinman, is about how a convicted killer, Edgar Smith, snookered segregationist magazine editor William F. Buckley Jr. into pushing for—and ultimately helping to win—his freedom. But the guts of it, and the stuff that will stay with you, are elsewhere. The respective portraits of Victoria Zielinski, the teenager murdered in 1957 by Smith, and Sophie Wilkins, the Knopf editor who turned Smith’s purple prose into a bestseller, are wonderfully vivid. Weinman took a footnote in Buckley’s life and turned it into a fully realized majestic narrative. —Elon Green, journalist and author of Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York
Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System
Junk Science by M. Chris Fabricant is a book that should be on every true-crime reader’s shelves. It is an eye-opening and infuriating tour through the failed idealism of forensic science as a discipline, how certain techniques like analyzing fibers and bite marks wilt under scrutiny, and how the criteria for “experts” in a courtroom can be laughable at best and dangerous at worst, causing scores of innocent people to lose decades behind bars (or, in some heartbreaking instances, their lives.) Fabricant’s widespread experience as director of strategic litigation of the Innocence Project imbues Junk Science with the requisite amount of righteous indignation to scrub away the myth of a working criminal justice system without losing faith that something better can emerge. —Sarah Weinman, author of Scoundrel and The Real Lolita
Mariah Fredericks’ true-crime novel builds on the bare elements of what’s known about the disappearance of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old toddler son, Charlie, in 1932. The main character is Betty Gow, Charlie’s nanny, a Scottish immigrant who was briefly under suspicion for the abduction before being cleared. Fredericks really brings the pathos of the situation to the fore. We spend ample time with Charlie, seeing him through Betty’s fond eyes, before he’s taken. Kids that age can be hard to write (he was just learning how to talk when he was killed), but Fredericks nails it. Betty’s heartbreak vibrates through the book, which is evocative rather than provocative, a model of sensitivity around a tragedy that was a sensation in its time.
—Rebecca Onion, Slate senior editor