Is true crime becoming a Dirty obsession?
With Netflix set to score another major hit with its new drama based on a real-life con artist, Tristram Fane Saunders explores our uneasy fascination with a genre that uses actual human suffering for entertainment
It's a love story that begins with a post mortem report, a description of a corpse mangled by 13 stab wounds. Before we learn whose body it is, or how their death came about, we are guided through a harrowing tale of manipulation, deceit and abuse.
Dirty John, a collaboration between the Los Angeles Times and audio producer Wondery, has become one of the most talked-about true crime stories of recent years. Now Netflix has picked up the rights to a forthcoming TV drama based on the hit podcast, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana.
Turning Dirty John into a TV series is a natural move, given that the story's violent twists and turns seem closer to a melodramatic telenovela than to anything that could happen in real life.
Across the podcast's six instalments, Pulitzer-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard tells the story of Debra Newell, a successful Californian interior designer seduced by John Meehan, a violent con artist described by one lawyer as "evil incarnate".
Newell, a four-time divorcee, met Meehan through an online dating site. He claimed to be a devout Christian, attending the same church as her. Just days after they met, he told her he loved her - they married in secret two months later. But Newell's children knew something was wrong with him, from his bodybuilder's physique (maintained with regular testosterone injections) to the tips of his dirty fingernails.
Meehan said he was an anaesthesiologist but never seemed to have any money, and spent all day playing shoot-'em-up video games. He insisted on wearing his strangely frayed and faded medical scrubs everywhere, "like a man wearing a costume". But Newell was in love. As Goffard puts it, "Where other people saw red flags, she saw a parade".
Episodes of the audio-documentary were downloaded more than five million times in the first three weeks after its launch, rocketing it to the top of Apple's podcast charts in October. It is the latest in a wave of popular crime podcasts that started in 2014 with Serial, and continued with Criminal, Casefile, Accused, S-Town, Somebody Knows Something, and so many others.
Where Dirty John differs from all these rivals is its multi-media format. A version of Goffard's report was serialised across six issues of the LA Times, and the story also appears as an online 'project', complete with tiny animated flourishes; one photo has been manipulated so a woman's hair flutters in the breeze.
But it's the podcast that has proved the biggest talking point. The written version has its own shocks (including a grisly photo of the stab victim in a hospital bed) but can't compete with the unparalleled intimacy of audio. In a recent interview, Goffard said he was influenced by classic US radio dramas, such as Orson Welles' The Shadow. And sure enough, Dirty John has been made with the feel of a retro-fitted noir thriller, soundtracked by the southern blues pop of Tracy Bonham's 'Devil's Got Your Boyfriend', and interrupted with regular commercial breaks.
There is something exploitative in all this. It's increasingly common to see 'true crime' - or to put it only a little differently, 'actual suffering' - repackaged as entertainment, whether as tastefully bleak ripped-from-the-headlines TV dramas (The Moorside, Little Boy Blue), or bingeworthy documentary shows, such as Netflix's Making a Murderer.
Dirty John, however, seems to tap into an older, more novelistic tradition. Describing Meehan's first date with Newell, Goffard writes: "His eyes were hazel-green, with the quality of cancelling out the whole of the world that wasn't her, their current focus." As crime reporting goes, it has less in common with, say, Netflix's The Keepers than it does with Truman Capote's 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood.
It's hard to fault Goffard's journalistic credentials, or the time spent trawling through "thousands of pages" of prison records, court reports and documents to tell this story. But the artful manner in which he tells it becomes jarring when it makes the leap from print to podcast.
On the page, it fits into a tradition of literary journalism. Through headphones, hearing Goffard speak the same words interspersed with clips from phone calls and wedding footage, it's something less easily defined, something more uncomfortable. Dirty John distances us from Newell and Meehan by painting them like characters in a thriller, while at the same time confronting us with their real voices.
At one point, we learn that Newell's daughter Terra obsessively re-watches the gory zombie series The Walking Dead, as if it's "a primer on how to survive apocalyptic calamity". Listening to Dirty John, it's hard not to wonder if we are being asked to treat her family's calamitous story like it's just another grisly entertainment.
Ironically, this bodes well for the Netflix show. As the podcast was already half way towards drama, taking the full plunge into fiction allows the producers to make the most of Newell's fascinating story, without the queasy voyeurism of forcing the real players to rake over their past trauma.