"What tips someone into Murderville is something that's happened to a lot of people"

We talked to the creators of "Redhanded" about the minds of murderers and our true crime obsessions

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 27, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Redhanded by Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire (Photo illustration by Salon/Steve Ullathorne)
Redhanded by Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire (Photo illustration by Salon/Steve Ullathorne)

Just this past month, we've seen our collective appetite for true crime reach a new level of obsessiveness with the Murdaugh family murders and the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito. Podcasts about these cases are already rolling out. But those of us who have been long fascinated with humanity's dark side know that our understanding of it isn't heightened vis-a-vis cable TV cliches about seemingly perfect marriages, and victims with smiles that could light up a room. Nor is true crime a warning about monsters lurking in the shadows. 

To the contrary: if there is one thing I've learned from my true crime obsession, it is that monsters don't, in fact, walk among us. That's the scary thing. There's the potential for monstrosity hidden in everyone. 

Indeed, if the "Redhanded" podcast stands out in the ever-widening sea of sensationalized and sloppy true crime content out there, it is because its creators, Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire, inject the right amount of sincere curiosity into the form. Over the course of over 200 episodes, the British broadcasters have explored some of the most infamous cases in the world with a mix of black humor, frequent outrage and an ever present desire for deeper understanding. Now, they've released a new book, "RedHanded: An Exploration of Criminals, Cannibals, Cults, and What Makes a Killer Tick," in which they consider some of the prime contributing elements that can "tip someone over into Murderville."

Bala and Maguire make no claim to being mindhunters. Instead, they're more like the rest of us — enthusiastic amateurs who want to know why very bad things happen. Are some people just born to kill? What makes a group a cult? What do we really mean when we toss around terms like "psychopath" or "spree killer"? Salon talked to the authors recently via Zoom about their literary project, diving in to the minds of murderers, and why women are devouring so much true crime.

As usual, this conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You've got a show that's been chugging along well. Why do a book?

Suruthi Bala: In all honesty, the catalyst for it was COVID lockdown. We had so many plans for 2020, and also the start of 2021, like live events. All of those in an instant were just completely obliterated. They were gone, and we were left with what to normal people would be maybe a bit more of a relaxed year. But we thought, "God, what are we going to do with our time?" So when our team reached out to us and said, "Would you guys be interested in writing a book?" It felt like a really natural fit for our particular audience. They are very bookish bunch.  

We've learned so much over the past four years. Hannah and I were not in law enforcement, we weren't in forensics, we weren't psychologists. We were nothing to do with anything, apart from just two people who were interested in true crime. That came with its benefits, because we went in with no preconceived notions about anything. We were just keen to explore. We wanted this book to be a culmination of everything that we had learned.

"Redhanded" isn't the kind of show where we do weeks and weeks and weeks on one case. It's, one episode on one case with our social commentary, our analysis, anything we can find. It didn't feel like it made sense to do a whole book on one story. That felt like a job for an investigative journalist, which we are not. It felt like a book that was going to be about the question we always get asked, which is, "What makes a killer kill?" We just wanted to write down almost a journal of everything we had discovered across the two hundred cases that we had covered.

How did you then frame it around these issues of justice, of who is seen and who is unseen, these categories that you explore again and again in the show?

Hannah Maguire: As soon as we figured out that it didn't feel right for us to be doing one case, we were like, okay, then it has to be something else. And then something else became the eight categories that we cover in the book. Originally when we were planning the book, we thought maybe we'd go through every stage of a person's life and every stage of your development and where it can go wrong. But then it just developed into things that affect everyone, and how killers are at the end of the day, humans. Usually what tips someone over into Murderville is something that's happened to a lot of people.

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Are there any cases you felt didn't fit into these categories, but you wished you could have done something else with in this process?

Bala: There was definitely a lot of that and a lot of late nights and a lot of stress and tears. But we're so proud of the book now. The idea of the thing that makes a person kill, in the kind of cases that we were looking at, felt like perversions of things that are so human, whether it's childhood genetics, whatever it may be.

That whole idea of calling somebody a monster, it couldn't have been more prevalent in the case of the genetics chapter. We explored this particular case of a man named Bradley Waldroup and this idea of people saying, "Well, he was just born that way. He had bad genes and that's what made him kill his wife's best friend and attack his wife." That was such a scary notion, because the people who are on the hunt for a killer gene were doing it so that they could say, "This person was literally born this way. They are different to us. We don't need to take any responsibility for things like poor health care, poor education, poor housing, social issues, inequality, any of that. That doesn't matter if that person was just born that way." Sometimes people think it's just a really woke liberal thing to say, "We shouldn't call these people monsters." There are real reasons as to why we shouldn't, because it makes us ignore the factors that made this person who they are. This is why we wanted to explore those eight different chapters and eight different factors.

In terms of the ones that we left out, the hardest thing was actually knowing, what is that point we are trying to make in this chapter? What story are we telling? And being really ruthless in that because we were working to such a limited timeframe.

You also step away from the narrative to ask, "What is a psychopath? What is narcissistic personality? What does it mean to be a family annihilator?" We hear these terms in true crime, but you say, "We're going to take a moment to really tell you what these things are." 

Maguire: We're both quite naturally curious people. I always want to know if you're watching a documentary or reading a book and a term like narcissistic personality disorder is thrown around, I've always felt like that was missing in true crime content was that explanation of what that actually means and how does it affect a person's life? People are people. Just because of their personality disorder, doesn't mean that they are just like completely alien. It's something we've always done on the show. When we're dealing so much with psychology, it just felt like the most natural thing to take a step back and be like, "What does that actually mean?"

We did Paris Bennett this week. There's a documentary about him that's called "Psychopath," and all of the information in it is completely wrong. They completely perpetuate this myth of the genius psychopath when that's just not what he is. There's so much of that out there that I thought that it would be wrong of us to stay in the true crime space if we didn't try and debunk some stuff that's been flying around for years.

I don't know the answer to why true crime has become what it has become over the past decade or so, and why in particular, it's so appealing to women. What has happened?

Bala: This is probably the second most common question that we get asked, and this answer has evolved. This is an answer that I have never actually given before, but it's one that we've been thinking about for a long time. I think the rise of true crime, especially true crime podcasting, and the popularity of true crime as a female heavy genre, go hand in hand. Before, when maybe men were producing true crime documentaries or whatever else, it was like, "And she was wearing this and walking down the street and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time." It was very alienating to women because we see ourselves in that victim so often.

Since "Serial," we have had the rise of female, true crime podcasters who are just women like me and Hannah, who had an interest in true crime who wanted to talk about it. We started creating the content that we felt was missing. The only reason we started "Redhanded" was because we met at a party , were listening to true crime podcasts that we were enjoying, but were saying that there could be another layer to those stories that are being told.

Once podcasting took off, and then you had these such low barriers to entry that anyone could do it. You had women creating content for true crime that they themselves wanted to hear. It pulled other women in because it was the content that was missing around it. Ii terms of why women are obsessed with true crime, yes, absolutely, the majority of victims of violent crimes are men, but it is a constant fear in the minds of women. I guess we feel much more vulnerable.

Maguire: Everyone is morbid. Everyone has a fascination with dark things, but I think true crime is the only space where women can talk about it without being told they're doing it wrong.

Is there a case that really haunts you?

Maguire: For me, David Parker Ray, which we cover in the sex chapter of the book. When we covered that one on the show a few years ago. It's definitely one that I have dreamt about since, and that doesn't happen very often.

Bala: You have to be able to compartmentalize what we're doing, otherwise we would never leave our houses or have any other sort of life. We've never felt, even if a case was particularly difficult for us to get through, that we wish we hadn't done it. We always feel like that story deserves to be told. Us suffering for a week or so with the research is nothing compared to what happened to the victim. One that I put off personally for a very long time, even though it was so important to me to cover, was the Delhi rape case. I'm of Indian heritage, and it was a case that felt so applicable to me and just absolutely horrific. Eventually we did cover it last year. It was honestly the hardest research I've ever done, but my God, am I glad that we did it because the response was so powerful. That really stuck for a long time.

Is there a case going on right now, or one you've tucked away, that you want to do?

Bala: We are holding off on covering the Scott and Laci Peterson case, because I've wanted to talk about it for ages. Some of the cases that we find the most interesting to research, for example like Darlie Routier are the "Did they actually do it or did they not?" ones. There seems to be a bunch of evidence pointing to the fact that they did do it, and a bunch of evidence pointing to the fact that maybe they didn't do it.

It's not beyond a reasonable doubt if we were in the courtroom. Scott Peterson's in the process of waiting to see if he can get another trial, so we're holding off on covering that until we definitely know. But yeah, that's probably the one that we are waiting with bated breath to have some sort of answer about, I guess.

There will always be mysteries. There will always be mayhem and cults and murders and family annihilators. But when you look at what you are building on now, talking about politics and other things, what is the community that you see yourselves creating?

Bala: Even when we started the show, four years ago, we had no brand mission. We had no, "This is what 'Redhanded' is going to stand for. This is the ethos, this is what we're going to achieve." We just started it. Now I'd say we are a bit more deliberate. The things that you mentioned about starting to talk more about the politics side of things and not being afraid to, four years ago, we would have been terrified to step foot into that domain. We've realized you can just have opinions and you can make sure you're as educated as possible on those opinions. Read as much as you can, not trap yourself in an echo chamber and just try to be nuanced in the things that you're thinking and saying.

One of the biggest surprises to me is how readily a true crime audience has followed us into being able to talk about politics, and how much they are open to that. Recent cases we've covered like the Shamima Begum ISIS case, where we talked about everything that was going on there and our own difficulties in knowing exactly what to think about X, Y, or Zed.

We've all changed so much in the past couple of years. What has changed in you in the way that you look at crime, in the way that you look at justice?

Maguire: My biggest realization that has fully formed over the past few years is that politics and crime are inextricably linked. I don't understand this argument of, "well, I just want to listen to a true crime show, I don't care about politics." They're the same. Everything is political. Getting the bus is political, taking your bins out is political. It's a very privileged position to be in, to be like, "Oh, I just don't really do politics."

As "Redhanded" has evolved, we've got more confident at making those links and proving a point and backing it up with facts. It's all very well to like say what you want, but we've got much better at constructing arguments as we've gone on, especially in the book as well. That was a real lesson.

Bala: When I was just a fan of true crime and not doing the podcast, I took cases at face value. I wasn't as conspiratorial minded as maybe I am now. I think you take things at face value when you aren't immersed in it day in, day out. Every case can be made into a political one. That's what we've discovered in writing the book and doing the show.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Criminology Hannah Maguire Interview Podcats Psychology Redhanded Science Suruthi Bala True Crime