‘You are full of information’, a stranger tells Starlee Kine in the most recent episode of her podcast Mystery Show.
Listening to this line (from case number six, ‘Kotter’, about a guy who wants to discover the meaning behind the animation on the cover of a lunchbox) while sitting on the train to Dublin, watching the sheep-scattered dull green fields flash past me, I nodded to myself. (There was no one else in my four-seat area, so my nodding couldn’t mark me out as a bit strange.)
‘That’s it,’ I thought, ‘Starlee is full of information. And she has the coolest name I’ve ever heard. Life is unfair.’ Life is unfair indeed, but in the world of Mystery Show, it’s also full of little epiphanies, turns around small corners, unexpected discoveries, and heart-melting conversations with people who work for Ticketmaster.
‘Why is there time? Why is there space?’
Kine is known to many of us podcast fiends from her singular contributions to This American Life, the public radio show that we clutch like an Ira Glass cushion to our bosoms for being The Best And Most Original Podcast That We Love And Secretly Wish We Could Contribute To.
With her youthful voice and chirpy-yet-sometimes-sarcastic attitude, Kine is the type of person you wish was your friend. You’d have great chats when you’re both out in the pub, she’d never push you into awkward situations, and exciting things would happen when you’re around her.
Which is probably why, judging by the podcast, she has some pretty cool friends – from a guy who works as an artisanal pencil sharpener to a producer who’s worked with Jake Gyllenhaal.
Though just six episodes in (there’s a second season on the way), Mystery Show is already quite a treasure.
The premise of each installment is that Kine solves a mystery. The twist is that it can’t be solvable by just using the internet, which in today’s world would probably turn off the most entrenched PI. The mysteries are, admittedly, small: a man finds a belt buckle; Kine sees an unusual license plate; a friend (the guy who sharpens pencils) wants to know definitively what Jake Gyllenhaal’s height is.
The great joy of Mystery Show isn’t that these mysteries are solved, but what emerges as Kine and her merry band of ‘investigators’ (read: cool friends) delve into each one.
‘Why are there nuns and why do they pray?’
The podcast’s mysteries are usually solved with the help of a large group of often totally unconnected people. Using recordings of her interviews with them, Kine gives us an intimate look into the mystery-solving process. We’re there for the ride. But what these people know about the mystery can often be the least interesting part of the conversation.
In case number two, ‘Britney’, Kine rings up a Ticketmaster agent to find out about a VIP trip to see Britney Spears. What should be a routine call turns into a truly emotional, tear-jerking chat. In ‘Kotter’, there’s also a moment where I stared, glassy-eyed, out the train window, feeling tears well up.
In the same episode, an incredible anecdote about Phil Spector comes from a guy who has very little else to say that would move the mystery-solving process forward. And yet, it’s the type of story that lingers in your mind for days afterwards.
Kine gets to the heart of what it is to be human when she chats with these oversharing strangers. I wonder if there is a cultural reason behind this: are American people more inclined to share intimate stories with people they don’t know? Are they just more confident when it comes to talking about their personal lives? Would the same type of conversation be as revealing if the podcast was made in Ireland?
Though I feel cultural reasons certainly do come into it, a large part also has to do with the Kine herself. She’s not quite of the faux-naif style of Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux, but there’s an openness and curiosity about her that makes people drop their guard and unveil their secrets and memories. It’s a gift, really, and her listeners get to unwrap each offering.
She’s inquisitive without being nosey, and tenacious without being overbearing. And she’s incredibly funny, in an often self-deprecating way.
What Kine discovers in solving these mysteries are slices of American life that feel exotic to those of us listening abroad, but familiar enough, human enough, to make us feel connected with these strangers.
These personal anecdotes seem to have gone unshared for years, and we get to hear them.
There’s a self-deprecating knowingness to Kine that’s appealing – she pokes fun at her mess-ups or things that are obvious. She tells us things we didn’t know we wanted to know about, handing out useless, random information. But somehow, this information feels useful. It’s an acknowledgement of the miniature and unexplainable obsessions that sometimes plague us.
On Mystery Show, what stays with you isn’t the answer to the mystery, but the journey it takes to get there. The joy is in the process itself, which is one of those cliches that rings true because it is so right.
(Oh, and the theme tune is by Sparks, which is reason in itself to listen to Mystery Show at all.)