‘Do you know the girl who was shot then brutally stabbed over and over until her face was barely recognisable?” If you’re familiar with the gory juggernaut of a genre that is the true-crime podcast, you will know this scenario is only a slight exaggeration – and that the genre is ripe for a spoof. Which is where intrepid investigator David Pascall comes in, alongside the residents of Bluff Springs, Nebraska, in A Very Fatal Murder.
The first podcast from OPR (that’s Onion Public Radio) lovingly satirises the gruesome real-life crime podcast. In podcasts such as S-Town, Serial and Criminal, the formula is as follows: a horrific crime happens in a small town no one has heard of, the police investigate and then some arty podcaster comes in and finds new evidence/a miscarriage of justice/that things aren’t what they seem. Meanwhile, listeners are enthralled as the story is recapped again and again while enticing suspects lurk around. It’s a hit combination.
Fans of gory real-life stories will love A Very Fatal Murder as much as those who mock the genre. True crime is far too popular for satire to be its death knell, but after listening to it being skewered on this podcast it will be much harder to take it seriously. If A Very Fatal Murder does kill off anything, it should be the attractive, murdered white girl beloved of, well, every crime show. You know the one: the viewer gets a glimpse of her semi-naked, bruised body. It’s a cliche as well-worn as the policeman whose investigation leads him to a strip club, where women gyrate in the background as he flashes his badge.
This podcast attacks the dead hot girl trope head-on with ETHL: the Extremely Timely Homicide Locator, a computer that searches for “the most interesting, violent, culturally relevant murder cases in America”. ETHL’s algorithms filter out cases such as the “missing coal miners who were probably illiterate but in a charming way” to make way for the real case: “One in which a really hot white girl dies.”
The case of Hayley Price does the job. She was “a typical 17-year-old with big dreams and clear skin: a high achiever, a debate champion, a prom queen, a doting girlfriend,” says Pascall. “But Hayley also excelled at being murdered.” Hayley was killed in all the great true-crime ways: “Stabbed, shot three times in the head, strangled, smothered with a pillow.”
You can almost sense the sideways looks to camera as Pascall – with much repetition and recapping – interviews the locals. Bluff Springs, with its population of 11,000, could well be S-Town’s Woodstock, Alabama, and Pascall’s soothing delivery has more than a hint of This American Life’s Ira Glass or Serial’s Sarah Koenig. There are the traditional tinkling pianos building tension in the background as the narrator searches for clues as to where the police went wrong.
The industry-standard fast-talking waitress is in there, as are the grieving family, who are forced to read out the podcast ads (“Enter our promo code: Hayley”). No spoilers, but it looks as if Pascall will get his wish: that Hayley didn’t die in vain – because she brought him more downloads, reviews and awards than any other podcast. The only drawback is for the listener, who will struggle to keep a straight face next time they hear a true-crime podcast and remember that Pascall is out there somewhere, searching for his next photogenic subject.