Whodunnit podcast turns out to be high-quality entertainment, writes Karl Puschmann.

Staring down the barrel of a weekend in Hamilton was enough to make me want to embrace grim death. Not my own of course, that would be crazy talk. Nor someones I knew either, that would just bum me out more.

No, I needed an abstraction to work as distraction. Something to take my mind off both the journey and eventual destination. Something that would make Hamilton look good in comparison.

The night before shuffling out of my mortal city to head towards the white light of the Waikato I got my affairs in order. Firstly I downloaded a free podcast player app for my phone and then, from within that app, I downloaded all nine episodes of the free American podcast Serial. Now, with death as nothing more than a travelling companion that would help kill the time I was ready. I was at peace. I was a little hungry.

All my knowledge of the show had been gleaned from endless tweets I'd scan past on my Twitter feed. But, as is often the case, it turned out my knowledge was hopelessly wrong.
I had been correct in knowing that Serial is the hottest podcast around right now and that it discusses real life murder cases.


However, I was woefully incorrect in knowing that it was about serial killers and that each episode would dissect the grizzly details of a despicable business.

Instead, Serial is journalist Sarah Koenig's in depth investigation into a single, long-closed, and until now largely forgotten murder.

Rather than channeling someone like Sam's son the podcast's title is instead a reference to the fact that the story here plays out slowly, episode by episode, or in real time, week by week. It's as far removed from being a one shot, monster-of-the-week affair as you can get.

Indeed, Serial is far more akin to an HBO drama than the podcast norm which are more popularly concerned with reviewing, interviewing or just a whole lot of babbling on.

Serial does none of these things. It's free to listen to, but like any good TV series it requires an investment of concentration and time before its payoff.

Sure, Koenig has an easy breezy, chatty style as she pontificates back and forth over each new plot point or piece of evidence she introduces and tries to make sense of.

But she stays on-script the whole time as she goes about meticulously revealing her cast of characters and their motives for maximum dramatic effect.

I say characters but I really should be saying people. Because the murder case being serialised is not just based on a true story. It is a true story.


Back in 2000 Baltimore student Adnan Musud Syed was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. This is where we find him now. Still in the slammer. Still protesting his innocence.

Nothing unusual there. Prison is full of people who didn't do nothing wrong. Just ask them.

But this is an unusual story. One that often times borders on the bizarre as sex, drugs and streakers all work their way into the chain of events, police case files and subsequently the narrative.

At it's core Serial is a whodunnit? The twist being that right from the outset we know whodunnit. Or, rather, we know who the police charged and a jury convicted of dunning it.

The questions Serial sets out to answer is did the man they lock up really do it? And if he didn't, then who did? And why?

That's a lot for any show to wrestle with. Least of all one made on a shoestring budget by a small team.


As she plays detective Koenig interviews everyone who will talk to her and broadcasts police and court recordings from the time of everyone who won't. She grinds through mountains of documents, drives to crime scenes and even sifts through Hae's diary (which had been presented as court evidence) in her attempts to get to the bottom of it all and uncover the truth.

Forming the basis of the prosecutions case against Adnan is the dubious testimony of a dodgy drug dealer, a track star who's alibi is shaky at best, two testified timelines that either don't add up or are physically impossible, a whole lot of proved actions that don't make any sense at all, and the unreliable pings of a cellphone tower.

As Koenig delves deeper each episode, this case begins to look shakier and shakier. But just when it's obvious a massive miscarriage of justice has been carried out against Adnan, Koenig will hit you with a twist or a turn in the tale. Another lie, an eyewitness account, or a scrawled "I'll kill her" on a note passed around class.

And always, Adnan on the phone from prison with a reasoned explanation for everything and the police on tape debunking it.

Now, six episodes in I really have no idea who the hell did what. Every time I know for certain, it turns out I don't.

Either Adnan did it, or he didn't. Only time will tell whether Koenig will be able to offer resolution to this story or if it's all just been a big fat, albeit entertaining, waste of time.


But what Serial does so well is really sucking you into the nooks, crannies and flurry of discrepancies of this long "solved" mystery. You want to keep listening because you're dying to know what happens next.

But you can't. Because you've reached your destination. Hamilton. The end of the line.

Where death waits patiently for you and the return trip home.

Listen to the podcast Serial here.

* Have you been listening to Serial? What other podcasts can you recommend?