RTÉ’s gripping series on an Irish killer in London is the latest true crime podcast to capture the public imagination, writes Ed Power
A FRIENDLY voice paints a picture in your head. A grey day in London, commuters gathered to catch the Underground. And then a flash of violence, a terrible shattering of reality, a passerby flung in the path of an oncoming train.
So begins The Nobody Zone, RTÉ’s new foray into the zeitgeisty realm of true crime podcasting. The six-part series, which launched last month, tells the incredible case of Kieran Patrick Kelly, an alcoholic vagrant killer from Rathdowney, Co Laois, who claimed to have killed 31 people in London between 1953 and 1983.
His assertions have never been fully substantiated, though he was convicted of two murders and sentenced to life in prison (where he died in 2001). If true they would make him one of Ireland’s most prolific serial killers.
Even without corroborating evidence, his story is a gripping psychodrama played out against the backdrop of London’s marginalised Irish.
“I came across Kieran Patrick Kelly in 2015,” says Nobody Zone producer Rob Mulhern. “I was working as a journalist in London, at the Irish Post. The whole thing sounded so remarkably weird. It was a bolt from the blue: nobody in the office had heard about it.”
The Nobody Zone goes beyond merely restating the facts. Hour by hour it fleshes out the complexities of Kelly’s life and crimes and unflinchingly depicts what it was like to be Irish in the UK at that time. The result is a engrossing blend of narrative journalism and radio documentary.
“Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and people like that are big touchstones for me. They used to write in a new journalism style. Telling true stories with a real flourish,” says Mulhern who cites the Irish Examiner’s recent podcast chronicling the career of Cork football legend Larry Tompkins as an example of top-class long-form journalism.
The Nobody Zone is an impressive feat of journalistic storytelling. What’s especially striking is a taped conversation in which Kelly admits his guilt to two detectives
“I went to the office of the British Transport Police,” says Mulhern, a Kildare native now working in London as a producer with Sky. ‘They wouldn’t give me the Kelly case files. I would sit in the office in the company of a contact I had cultivated. I could photograph things with my phone. And he let me listen to the tape. Eventually he told me he’d made a copy of it.”
The Nobody Zone is doing well for RTÉ as word spreads about its gripping tale. It certainly arrives at an opportune moment, with podcasting’s true crime gold rush showing little sign of ending. True crime shows are, of course, as old as podcasting itself. But the present craze began in earnest with season one of WBEZ’s Serial in October 2014.
Sarah Koenig’s revisiting of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Maryland’s Woodlawn High School, became a dinner party topic of conversation around the world. It even led to an (unsuccessful) judicial appeal by Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the killing, and a Netflix documentary rejecting many of the claims in the podcast.
Serial was the start of something huge. Where it has gone thousands have followed. These include Audible’s West Cork, a blockbuster account of the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder in Schull in 1996 and its surreal aftermath.
Such a level of popularity, of course, brings challenges of its own. How to stand out from the crowd? “There are over 800,000 podcasts that you can access on your phone,” says Mulhern. ‘Only one per cent do more than 32,000 downloads A lot of people are making this stuff.
“There does seem to be something about the podcast format that really lends itself to the genre,” says Sinead McHugh, host of the Irish true crime podcast Mens Rea. “There’s a huge array of types of true crime podcasts, including conversational, comedy, investigative and storytelling. And so listeners can find the kind of show and formats that suits them.
What of the claim true crime podcasts are ghoulish and exploitative? “I hear a lot of criticism that true crime podcasts are treading over the grief of others for entertainment,” says Adam Lloyd, host of the UK True Crime podcast. “In almost every case I don’t agree. The podcast I produce and the ones I listen to absolutely put the victims first.
“Going back, it is really clear that we have been interested in crime for years — ever since the late 17th century when newspapers focused on crime to shift copy. And, of course, it wasn’t so long ago that crowds used to gather to watch public executions.”
EMPATHY IS KEY
McHugh agrees: “There’s an approach in many true crime shows that’s very empathetic, and victim-focused or rights-focused. That is different from the sort of sensationalist approach that we’d have seen on TV in the 90s. I’d like to think that reflects people’s interest in social justice and human rights.”
“Because podcasts are quite independent from other forms of media we’re able to take that approach and allow it to inform the stories we tell,” she continues.
“There is a view I hear a lot that our enjoyment of true crime is really influenced by how much we care,” says Lloyd. “After all, it focuses on the most profound areas of human emotion and physical and mental experience. We are naturally interested in what happens and why. This is why we watch TV, read books, listen to audio and follow people on social channels, isn’t it?”
New episodes of The Nobody Zone are released weekly. Episode three is out this week