Podcasts: respectful but compelling series about a half-billion art haul
Last Seen explores a crime without hinging on personal pain
Last Seen: There is a mystery at the core of this investigation that does handle a loss, perhaps an irrevocable loss – but there is a safety in listening to it.
Crime podcasts, as I have written about in this column many times before, are generally my least favourite genre within the form. In the wake of Serial’s phenomenal reception, seemingly endless “whodunnit” style true-crime excavations continue to populate the charts. So many shows of this nature feel cynical, and exploitative of both listener and subject. However, Last Seen is exactly the antithesis of the by-now stereotypical journalist-interviews-the-mourning-family-of-a-missing-or-murdered-person format. Thirteen paintings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, on St Patrick’s Day night in 1990, and this podcast is about that heist.
As a show, it manages to be respectful, but still emotional and compelling: perhaps because it does not deal with irrevocable violence or murder. Instead, the high stakes are provided by the reality that unique pieces of history have utterly disappeared. The interviewees stress the importance of the loss: describing them as works of civilisation, cut violently from their frames, never to be seen again. This theft doesn’t damage the legacy of the painters: rather, it is the broken hearts of the museum staff that makes the tragedy so palpable. Given the advent and accessibility of digital imagery, I imagine it could be hard to empathise with the loss of stolen paintings. However, the passion with which the curators and staff speak about the pieces is contagious: in some ways, this podcast is a lesson on the importance of historical art.
I found myself unable to stop listening, not because I believe that the half-a-billion-dollars haul will be retrieved, or the perpetrators of the theft brought to justice, but because the nature of the theft and the pain left behind is unique in the podcasting landscape. Stories like this don’t get told in this manner, and they should. Perhaps true-crime drama doesn’t need to hinge on the excavation of personal pain to make for gripping listening. Certainly, the security guard on duty the night of the theft does give a chilling interview. He describes wondering if he was going to die that night in a manner that is little short of gothic. But the production does not handle this exposition in a way that feels ugly. There is a mystery at the core of this investigation that does handle a loss, perhaps an irrevocable loss – but there is a safety in listening to it. This could provide a really excellent alternative for true-crime listeners who feel a little saturated by missing-prom-queen tropes. At the time of listening, we are only two episodes deep so far, but I am waiting with bated breath for episode three.