This article originally appeared at The Timbre, a journal dedicated to podcasting.
In Gimlet’s Mystery Show, Starlee Kine investigates the cold cases of everyday life. Each episode seesThis American Life alumna Kine take on an unsolved mystery which has been bugging her clients for months, even years. These aren’t on the scale of heists or murders: people come to Kine when they want to know the story behind a curious personalized number plate, or find out the height of Jake Gyllenhaal. The answers aren’t the only thing that matters, but you’re still going to want to know: this article contains spoilers.
When I listen to the third episode of Mystery Show, I’m walking down a street in Birmingham, England. I don’t live there, but I’ve just been to look around an apartment in the Jewellery Quarter. The visit was a bust. The building manager didn’t have the keys, and it already feels far too hot for a British June. I don’t know anyone in the city other than my PhD supervisor, an old friend I don’t see as often as I ought to, and, come October, my currently long-distance girlfriend.
You don’t care about any of this, because you don’t know me. And neither does Starlee Kine, but here’s the thing: when I listen to Mystery Show I feel, for just a moment, as if she might. Because Kine’s podcast is driven by something it sometimes feels impossible to credit in the modern world–a belief in the possibility of human connection. Despite her knowing citation of noir clichés, her carefully-considered stakeout drawl, Kine’s approach feels too enthusiastic, too open to surprise, to be reduced to a shtick. There is truth in the tropes, somehow, and skill in the way the show embraces them to move into something more felt, more real.
Key to Kine’s approach to detection is a love of the detour, the will-o’-the-wisp, which leads her and her listeners down blind alleys and on shaggy dog stories entirely of her own devising. In Episode 4, we spend a solid five minutes discovering why a former 911 operator might love the service enough to put its numbers on a license plate; in the pilot, Kine finds her investigation briefly sidelined by the plot of You’ve Got Mail. But as so often in detective stories, the scenes of the least apparent relevance are those to which we ought to attend most closely. Because exciting as the grand reveal often is, what matters is how the story is told to us, and the people that we meet along the way.
Any listener to the podcast will be familiar with the tours-de-force that Kine is capable of: the sudden deep-dives into the psyches and personal histories of individuals the rest of us might only encounter on a purely functional basis. The barely-helpful interviewee; the guy at the end of the Ticketmaster phoneline. Her real genius lies not, however, in these isolated home-runs, but in the attitude–at once meandering and diligent–which leads her to them. This is her refusal to treat any interlocutor as a means to an end, a drive containing a discrete amount of useful data. The obvious glee and kindness underlying even her most superficial enquiry is what delivers such compelling results. Like The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway, she invites confidences; unlike him, she inspires confidence. When she asks the listener “Did you miss me?”, you feel as if you know her and you ought to say “Yes.”
It must be quite a trip, to go about the world with this kind of head on. If every person you see is a treasure-chest of stories just waiting for the right question to open up, then you are never more than seconds away from a glittering, life-changing revelation. But of course, they are, and we’re all just too busy power-walking between pointless appointments, listening to podcasts, to notice.
Podcasts, however, might be the most appropriate medium for this kind of unexpected intimacy. The form itself relies on listening, which Bruce R. Smith has characterized as “accepting presence” in an inevitable, physiological sense. In The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, Smith describes how “the thereness of sound becomes the hereness of sound in the ear of the receiver.” Another person’s voice, physically present in the room even if it was recorded far away, by someone distant or even long-dead, reverberates inside the listener’s head and body, “out there and in here at the same time.” I remember being astonished, listening to The Who as a teenager, to think that those drums were being played by a dead man. Sound makes it possible to bridge the gap between the self and others.
And the buoyant faith Kine brings to her sonic expression of this simple idea–that we can, and should, just talk to each other–insulates Mystery Show against all but the most mean-spirited criticism of its storytelling or its stakes. Sure, the answers might be available online, we could occasionally have gotten to the destination sooner–but that would be at the expense of enjoying the ride.
As Reply All host PJ Vogt writes on Transom, “shenanigans can replace stakes,” but the kinds of shenanigans which Kine has made her M.O. have the paradoxical effect of raising them. All this goofing around, all these minor characters, sneak a couple of ideas up on you, like a pill inside a dog-treat. Goofing around is how we form the closest friendships of all; no one is a minor character in their own life. So when Kine meets Hans Jordi for the first time, at the end of “Belt Buckle”‘s long search–typical Swiss–it feels big. It feels serious. He’s the culmination of the hopes, memories, dreams, and projections of everyone in the story who has ever met him or wanted to meet him. He’s a mythic cowboy hero and a real-life Swiss chef, simultaneously bigger than himself and exactly who he is at the moment of Kine’s surprise.
I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to be so moved by an eighty-year-old Swiss man I have never met, in a town I will probably never visit, rediscovering a long-lost gift. But unexpectedly, I’m welling up. Empathy, like God, moves in mysterious ways.