Why you should care

Because you want to know why you’re afraid of the woods. 

By the Gregorian calendar, the year is A.D. 2015. But for podcast fanatics, we’re in year 1 of A.S. (After-Serial), trying to fill a crime-podcast-shaped hole in our hearts until season two. Why do crime podcasts make such great listening? They have a natural narrative and ooze with intrigue. “There’s built-in drama,” says Devon Taylor, podcast reviewer at The Timbre.

Of course, premise is “only half the battle,” Taylor says, so skip the programs without well-drawn characters or a semblance of narrative arc. Your precious commuting hours deserve better. There’s nothing worse than a hard-to-follow story that seems utterly important to understand. Here are four must-listen-to podcasts that deal with the creepy, the criminal and the mysterious. They tell extraordinary stories — through history, anecdote or investigation — that will make your heart race.

Detective

Warning: This new podcast is not for the weak-stomached. The episodes are “true stories from behind the yellow tape,” and listeners gain access to an entire world of murder that, let’s be real, would be pretty awkward to ask a detective about, even if you had one on hand. Its greatness might just be the husky voice of the series’ interviewee, retired detective Joe Kenda, or maybe the way he stays close to the gruesome details. His hope? That listeners will “get a drift of how difficult this work is, how consuming it can become.” Its draw could be that most of the podcast is unscripted. It’s like the auditory version of not being able to look away from a car wreck. You’ll even learn what happens to the legs of a dead man when he falls down.

If you can listen to only one: second episode, “The Toughest Case” (length: 10 minutes).

Missing Maura Murray

Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna investigate the 11-year-old case of Maura Murray’s disappearance in New Hampshire. It plays out serial style, investigating one crime-related question and weighing theories week by week. Eight episodes in, the case hasn’t been solved, but the trail is surprisingly hot. “We have to stay fluid,” Pilleri says. New insights — from firsthand accounts and podcast listeners (who Reenstierna says are “thoughtful” and engaged in a way bloggers aren’t) — shape each episode. If you love MMM and want more, the podcast’s hosts expect their documentary, about the people obsessed with Murray’s disappearance, to come out in 2016.

If you can listen to only one: first episode, “Introduction” — otherwise you’ll be lost (length: 39 minutes).

Criminal

Started a year and a half ago, Criminal has shared more than 20 stories of crime — some more lighthearted, others more sad or scary, like the 1896 murder of Pearl Bryan. “We always want there to be a little twist to the story — either an opportunity for the listener to be the judge of right and wrong or a character who’s incredibly compelling,” host Phoebe Judge says. It’s a podcast focused on well-drawn characters and the extraordinary. “When someone’s life is touched by crime, it’s probably going to be a remarkable experience,” Judge says.

If you can listen to only one: 23rd episode, “Triassic Park” (length: 20 minutes).

Lore

The concept is brilliant: Scary stories — about vampires, witches, insane asylums, curses — are mythologized. But there are facts and stories behind their creation that are worth deep-diving into. For instance, what has happened to make people so afraid of swamps and woods? History’s spookiness has never been conveyed so well. “Lore is my attempt to bring oral storytelling back,” host Aaron Mahnke says. Mahnke tells a story an episode, each packed with research and fascinating because the truth is often stranger than fiction.

If you can listen to only one: sixth episode, “Echoes” (length: 20 minutes).

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