“This is a story about a baron” teases the narrator of a new ten-part podcast about a Nazi hunt. It’s a “real-life mystery” that begins in a 14th century Austrian castle, where the SS official Otto von Wächter lived with his family amid copies of Mein Kampf inscribed with salutations from Himmler.
QC Philippe Sands leads the investigation into Otto’s disappearance after the war. “That’s the schloss!” he oozes, as the castle rears over the hills of Hagenberg on his approach to visit Otto’s now elderly son Horst, a man obsessively reluctant to admit his father’s guilt despite the small matter of Otto’s firm indictment for war crimes. Horst has spent years honing his denials. Where Otto carelessly scribbles in a letter back home – “Tomorrow I have to have 20 Poles shot” – Horst only detects regret in the phrasing.
Sands (whose grandparents died in the Holocaust) is winsomely fond of Horst, who rattles round the ramparts like Hamlet, dragging wood for the burner. There’s a touch of cap-doffing in any mention of the drafty Schloss Hagenberg, which dates back to the Templars. One doubts Philippe would be so fond if Horst occupied a piss-stained hostel in Augsburg.
The first four episodes twist gloomily by. Ancient Nazis (tended by clucking daughters) are discovered – and immediately die. Occasionally Stephen Fry pops up as Otto in any letter readings, which transmits the rather fatal, drawing-room air of an Agatha Christie, whereas it’s the atmosphere of noir that such investigative podcasts aspire to – the blackest melancholy lyricism of a Dashiell Hammett, which makes real life sound like baby talk.
I used to think that the absolutely unstoppable surge of real-life crime podcasts was just a curious iteration of the Victorian penny dreadful. But really it has more to do with long-form television. There, tension is the only game in town. Keep them hanging on; don’t finish the story. It so drives the structure of modern narrative that all story-telling is doomed to be consumed episodically (even cinema). Give us your money! It’s a cliff-hanger!
In art, as in life, one question now completely dominates: WTF happens next?
Intrigue: The Ratline
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis