podcast review

Suspect Might Be the Best True-Crime Podcast of the Year

Photo: Wondery

One of the more intriguing aspects of Suspect, a new nine-part investigative true-crime podcast, is the extent to which many of the people interviewed seem to express outward awareness about the fact they’re on a true-crime podcast — and what that can mean.

“Can you please do me a favor?” asks a man, previously designated as a person of interest, when approached in the third episode. “I’m trying to tell the truth … don’t cut this podcast to make me look like a maybe suspect.” Later, a woman who served as the jury foreperson in a pivotal trial talked about her responsibility as follows: “I had to pay attention. This isn’t some true-crime podcast I can listen to and just have an opinion on.”

In the year of our Lord 2021, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a true-crime podcast. The genre, fueled by sheer abundance and the brute force of its popularity, has seeped deep into the culture, reaching a point where the form should probably be expected to engage more routinely in some level of self-reflexivity. A curious thing about Suspect, though, is that as much as some of its interviewees display awareness about the format they’re engaging with, the show itself largely resists doing the same. In fact, Suspect is as straightforward as a true-crime podcast can get.

Suspect takes up the unsolved murder of Arpana Jinaga, who was killed the night of a Halloween party at her Redmond, Washington, apartment complex in 2008. The case is described to us as a true whodunit, one that relies purely on circumstantial and DNA evidence because there weren’t any witnesses to the killing. That the murder took place around the time of a Halloween party lends a slightly surreal quality to the way law-enforcement types discuss the case on tape: “Was it the gangster? Was it Jesus’ secretary?” Suspect initially sticks to the costumed whodunit structure, chiefly to establish the gallery of possible suspects, but eventually jettisons that framing as it progresses through the outcome of the actual police investigation. Short of clear leads and smoking guns, the authorities ultimately pin the crime on the lone Black man at the party, Emanuel Fair, who had a prior criminal record.

Let’s get this out of the way: Suspect is a very good listen. In terms of pure execution, it’s probably the best narrative true-crime podcast I’ve heard all year. The team, led by Matthew Shaer and Eric Benson (who previously collaborated on Over My Dead Body), with further reporting by Natalia Winkelman, approaches every beat of the investigative documentary process with clinical precision and workmanly competence. The resulting product is tight as hell, a listening experience of such efficiency that I couldn’t help but compulsively move from each episode to the next.

But Suspect is often so uncomplicated in its telling, it almost seems anonymous. Sure, it grapples with several important ideas — discriminatory policing based on race, the limitations of DNA evidence, the thorny relationship between the judicial system and actual justice — but it doesn’t end up being particularly about any of those things, nor does it substantially advance the conversation on any front. This is a series whose internal universe pretty much stops at the very edges of its specific case.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course. After all, not everything has to be about something bigger than itself, and there’s something to be said about delivering the most polished version of a standard. In that sense, Suspect is a little bit like the true-crime podcast version of a Gerard Butler movie or a really good episode of Law and Order: an exemplar of its genre, but not a revolutionary, which I sincerely mean as praise.

But it does leave me with a strong sense of want, and a feeling that the genre is long overdue for a quantum leap forward in its language. This contemporary moment of true-crime-podcast ubiquity and cultural power presents greater opportunity for more ambition and formal innovation than we’re seeing across the board right now, I think. The gap between practice and potential is further underscored by the many instances in which Suspect carries the genre’s various conventions and clichés. There’s plinking music. There’s a narrative buildup toward the presentation of a maybe suspect being the likely culprit. There are even awkward smash cuts to ads, a stylistic staple nowadays, where you don’t quite realize you’re listening to a host-read ad for the show’s presenting sponsor (and not a continuation of the actual episode) until a few seconds into the read.

Still, I don’t mean for this discussion of aesthetics to take us too far away from Suspect’s merits in and of itself. The series plays out in two halves: the first is a deep dive into the mystery of Arpana Jinaga’s murder, while the second walks through the events of Emanuel Fair’s legal trials, which he endured while being wrongfully imprisoned for nine years. Suspect is a lot more successful in the latter mode, if only because the series wraps up with yet another genre convention: the original mystery resolves inconclusively.

It’s probably a “spoiler” to tell you at this point that the team doesn’t end up solving Jinaga’s murder. If they did, you’d probably see a news cycle about it by now. They do unearth some new information and context, but this remains a story whose outcome can be easily Googled, even as Suspect underlines the details and the stakes with a more prominent shade. That said, the meta value of podcasts like this — along with magazine features, documentaries, and other media formats more generally — tends to be clustered in how it can drum up more real-world interest in the case to a point where it can maybe produce a chance of shaking up more meaningful leads. In that sense, the end of Suspect could very well be the start of the rest of the story. Or it might not.

In any case, Suspect’s overarching narrative builds up to Fair’s victory against wrongful imprisonment. In 2019, he ultimately walked free after being acquitted of the murder charges. The final stretch of the series lingers in the bittersweet of the triumph: It’s justice, but it comes after great loss. Meanwhile, the shift in the podcast’s emphasis does mean that Jinaga’s own story ends up fading into the background a little bit. This is perhaps another way Suspect embodies a core quality of the contemporary true-crime podcast experience: You might get a little more truth and even a little more justice, but you’re still far from closure.

Suspect Might Be the Best True-Crime Podcast of the Year