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How two feisty Brits met, got drunk, and became true crime podcasting soulmates

Cult hit RedHanded balances the appeal of true crime storytelling with progressive politics — and a lot of charm.

Hannah Maguire and Suruthi Bala, hosts of UK true crime podcast RedHanded.
RedHanded/Polymath PR
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

We all have art in our lives that is sacrosanct — books, films, and other works by creators we love so much we’ll hear no ill spoken of them, series and shows we’re impossibly subjective about. For me, one of those beloved works is RedHanded, a true crime podcast hosted by two British women, Hannah Maguire and Suruthi Bala, who met at a party one night and bonded over their shared love of murder.

If fate exists, I can believe it aligned the stars to unite Hannah, an outspoken redhead and social anthropologist turned actor who in an earlier lifetime was probably frequently described as a “wench,” and Suruthi, a brilliant economics graduate with a terrible habit of blithely hitchhiking across Europe. To me, Hannah and Suruthi are perfect. RedHanded, in which they narrate grisly stories of murder while injecting wry wit and smart sociopolitical commentary, is also perfect; I once thrust a recommendation for the show into the hands of a colleague and anxiously awaited her response after she’d listened to a few episodes. “They’re perfect,” she told me, and my whole body unclenched.

I’m not alone in feeling this way: RedHanded has won fans across the globe and garnered a large Patreon following, making it one of the top-earning podcasts on the platform and enabling Hannah and Suruthi to leave their jobs and commit to the show full time. While the true crime podcast medium has been well and truly overpopulated since the Serial phenomenon of 2014, RedHanded’s hosts started their show as longtime fans of true crime podcasting themselves and thus understood exactly what they wanted to do differently. They began RedHanded in 2017 with the intent to frame cases within a broad sociocultural and political context — focusing on the causes, victimology, and psychology of crime rather than just the criminals. Their approach fit right into a shifting narrative trend that many true crime podcasts have spearheaded and one that many documentary filmmakers have embraced in recent years, especially as part of the Me Too movement — but it’s still a rarity.

RedHanded’s format — two amateur hosts discuss specific murder cases in weekly standalone episodes that are about an hour long — is one of the most common true crime podcast formats. (For example, My Favorite Murder, Generation Why, or True Crime Garage.) Long-form true crime podcasts that explore a specific case or issue over several episodes tend to be glossier; they’re usually fronted by journalists working with a media outlet or podcast network, and they typically come with lots of polish and prestige. (Think: In the Dark, Dr. Death, or The Thing About Pam.)

Hannah and Suruthi aren’t journalists, and they deliberately downplay any hint of poshness; they recorded their first episode in a violin cupboard and wield that tidbit like war veterans displaying pride over their battle scars. But they approach the research and presentation of their show with a journalistic sensibility and give each case the context and analysis that typically comes from deeper-dive podcasts.

Still, the main draw of RedHanded is arguably Hannah and Suruthi themselves. By this point, more than 180 episodes in, they feel like old friends — people whose habits, flaws, dating mishaps, and misadventures I know well. Though the true crime podcasting space isn’t a confessional space, these women have made it one, frequently interpolating tidbits about their own lives and experiences in a way that feels very inviting and probably explains why they have so many dedicated listeners — or at least why I love them so much.

It’s also why, when I was recently offered the chance to interview them, I felt like a fangirl first and a critic and interviewer second. After spending so much time listening to them and building up a one-sided rapport, it was odd to realize I hadn’t in fact already quizzed them personally about their thoughts on the current state of true crime media — especially given how busy the genre seems lately, with no sign of slowing down. During our conversation, they spoke about their unique partnership, the true crime podcasting community, and trends in the genre — and why, despite their thousands of established fans, they don’t really care if you like them or not.

One of the things that I think makes RedHanded unique is that you two pretty much met through the podcast — you were drunk, you met at a party, and you decided to start this podcast without really knowing each other. Is that pretty much it?

Hannah Maguire: No, that’s exactly it.

And it was actually a Thanksgiving party, which we don’t have here [in the UK]. I had an American flatmate and he was a total arsehole. He had a massive family that came to visit him, and they all wanted to stay in this tiny flat that we had, and there was just, they were everywhere. So like, I had to climb over air beds to get into my room, I had to make dinner for everyone when I didn’t even want to come home. Anyway, a friend who was [also] staying with us went to school with Suruthi, and he was like, “Hi, can my friend Suruthi come? She’s just come back from traveling.” I was like, fine. What’s one more person?

Suruthi showed up — and we always say that, like, it’s what you want to happen when you meet the love of your life. We just got on so well and we just wanted to talk about the same stuff and do the same stuff all the time. And then, yeah, we just drank a lot and figured out that, firstly, listening to podcasts — not long ago in the UK, not that many people were doing it — so to find someone who was listening to the specific murder podcast I was listening to felt like a seminal moment.

Was there a specific podcast that you bonded over?

Maguire: I think it was Last Podcast on the Left — and true crime in general. And then we just started theory-swapping about JonBenét Ramsey, right in front of actual children.

You described the rom-com serendipity of it all, but was there a moment when you went, “Oh, my god, I may have met the perfect podcasting partner”?

Suruthi Bala: It happened really quite quickly because I left the party at Hannah’s — and granted we were quite drunk, but you know, we were like, “Let’s become best friends, let’s start this true crime podcast, let’s do all of this.” And the next day I actually remember texting two of my close friends at the time being like, “I met someone” and they were like, “Oh, my god, finally, you met somebody!” And I was like, “Oh, no, it’s not a guy. It’s a girl. And we’re going to start a true crime podcast.”

I think Hannah and I are both quite big personalities. You just know when you meet somebody else, if the chemistry is right, if you get on well, and obviously we didn’t know when we started this whether we weren’t gonna massively clash further down the line, but luckily, that hasn’t been the case. Right place, right time, pure luck.

I think something that makes RedHanded a little different from other true crime podcasts is that listeners get to see you becoming friends as you go along — doing the whole new friends thing where you discover facts about each other.

Maguire: I think I’m really very grateful that we didn’t know each other before, because you always hear these horror stories of friends who go into business together, and you’ve got all of this emotional baggage, and we didn’t have any of that when we started it. And we’re very lucky that we’ve become such great friends, and we’ve made this amazing thing together and we traveled the world and done all of that stuff. But it’s always been this relationship where we were learning all the time. So I think we’ve done a pretty okay job of making that relationship work in a friendship sense and also in a business sense.

Bala: We had nothing to lose, and that was a good thing.

So how did you actually get RedHanded off the ground? Had either of you actually worked on something like this before?

Bala: I don’t think we actually taught ourselves anything. We were meeting up. We were chatting, we were talking more about our interest in true crime rather than practically about the podcast. And then I think one day it was kind of like, “We keep talking about this, we should just do it.” And we sort of just started it with no experience in broadcasting, no understanding of how to do editing or anything, basically — neither of us were from this space.

So we actually weren’t prepared, and we didn’t have any sort of plan of who was going to do what. It has interestingly just happened quite organically since we started. I don’t think we’ve ever really sat down. We just sort of did it in a very efficient way. I don’t know how it happened.

I think that’s how many true crime podcasts start out. I tend to like true crime podcasts that feel like they were made by two people in a garage — there are a bunch that all have this very homegrown aesthetic. I don’t know if that’s your experience, but it feels like you’re both part of that and also not part of that.

Maguire: I think a big thing for us is that we’re British. A vast majority of the true crime podcasts that are out there are American. So we’re always going to be outsiders in that sort of space, I think.

You’ve said that you don’t really get a chance to watch a lot of true crime, but you’re obviously aware of true crime trends, like the latest documentaries and the most controversial cases.

Bala: I actually still really enjoy watching true crime — documentaries and drama, I’ll watch all of it. Hannah is much better at compartmentalizing herself, which is a good thing, to step away. The thing that we’ve tried to do — I don’t know if it was even a conscious decision, I think we just came into true crime podcasting at the right time. We happened to have the right way of thinking about things [so] that we fit into the current trend [when we started RedHanded in 2017] — the direction you [still] see true crime narratives moving in, which is much more victim-centric, which is much more analytical. Much less the old-school, outdated hacky weird [themes] and preconceptions they used to have in the past.

And, you know, I think we’re just also very lucky, very lucky. This is a weird way to put it, but both of us being women as well in true crime, we automatically have a different way of looking at things. Both of us love Last Podcast on the Left, and this is no shade on them, but they are three guys. And we used to listen to it and think, “That was so well done. It’s so funny. It’s so well researched — but there’s something else that we could bring to the table.”

We take the research really seriously. We never tried to be a comedy podcast, and we certainly wouldn’t claim to be. We want you to get to know us, personality-wise. But the narratives and the route that we have taken, which is much more victim-centric, much more analytical, is what I think you’re starting to see. And I think actually one of the trends that’s interesting is [something I noticed when] I watched [the new Netflix series] Night Stalker.

Oh, I’m writing about that series right now, actually.

Bala: Oh, yeah. I actually thought it was really interesting. And I’d be interested to see what you think of this, but I watched it and I thought, “I see exactly what they have tried to do here, exactly what they’ve gone for.” Because I felt like they really tried to follow the current trend at the moment with true crime. It’s very victim-centric. It’s very survivor and survivor’s family- or victim’s family-centric. It’s very police and investigation-centric. And I feel like they purposely made the decision to ignore him.

Exactly. That’s very clear.

Bala: It’s so obvious, isn’t it? But I watched it with my mum and my brother, and both of them were like, “What the hell is this?! I wanted to know about Richard Ramirez — I wanted to know about who he was.” And I had just said, “Oh, he’s horrible. His crimes are horrible. But his childhood was really messed up.” It’s really — I was fully expecting Night Stalker to talk about all those things. And they didn’t talk about his childhood at all.

This is the fine line that we have to tread in the new era of true crime, which is not to glamorize, not to focus solely on the killer. And to bring in the narratives of the victims and the people and the community that caught these [criminals], especially in the Richard Ramirez case. And I totally get that.

But at the same time, you can’t just decide to not talk about him at all, because that’s what people want. And that is also interesting. So I think we really tried to not do this, which is just say, “Oh, we’re doing this podcast for the victims.” Because, to be honest, that’s not why we’re doing it; we’re doing it because we want to tell these stories and we want it to be creative and engaging and interesting. And we want people to learn things and we do want people to change their perspectives on things, like [with] our Black Lives Matter series. But like, don’t pretend that it’s just for this reason [of centering the victims], it’s also because there is a curiosity around the entire topic, and you can’t just completely erase Richard Ramirez.

And also, if you erase the killer completely from the narrative, then you also erase any chance of having empathy for him and people like him.

Bala: Or understanding why this happened and how to stop it [from] happening again or anything like that. Night Stalker was like, “Nope, he doesn’t exist.”

This is something that has come up over and over again in the last year, but I haven’t really seen the true crime community grapple very deeply with the implications of what it means to be true crime fans who are also trying to tread this very delicate line between glorifying the police and criticizing the police when necessary. And I wonder how you approach that. Is it just contextual?

Maguire: We generally do everything on a case-by-case basis, but we’ve been doing this for so long now that we would be lying if [we said] there weren’t themes and we’ve got better at recognizing them. There are shows that will never say a bad word about the police. But I think it’s very important to not be afraid to criticize the police. If they’ve done something that’s fucked up, then you just have to look at what the story is and call out bad policing when you see it. But then also be like, “Actually, when they found that one guy’s license plate out of 1,700 vans, that was sick.” Balance it.

Do you feel like your audience is the typical true crime audience in terms of what it expects from your treatment of these issues?

Bala: I think that [with] any sort of show like this, you attract whatever message or brand that you’ve put out there. And so Hannah and I have attracted a very progressive, very liberal, very outspoken, mainly female audience who are of similar age [young millennials] to us. It’s very reflective of who we are. And they’re also not backwards in coming forward about telling you when you’ve got something wrong or when they disagree.

I think we like to challenge our audience’s perceptions as well. We’re not always just going to tell them what they want to hear, and we’ve tried to pick cases that challenge people’s narratives or challenge people’s ways of thinking. For example, when we did the Samuel Petty case, which was the one about the Charlie Hebdo killings, and then the teacher who got beheaded, we know that a lot of people maybe didn’t want us to say some of the things that we thought in there, because it was a bit sensitive. But I think we are lucky that we have a very deep-thinking audience who are reflective.

Do you think that that type of audience can coexist with a different type of true crime audience? I’m just thinking about the ideological divide between conservatives and progressives, which you are both very aware of, and wondering how that impacts the true crime community in your opinion.

Maguire: Crime is inherently political, so I feel like it’s impossible to take out a political narrative from crime stories. So there are always going to be people who disagree. Generally, people are nice to each other about it within our own social media spheres, but sometimes they aren’t, and there’s not heaps we can do about that. But we do increasingly live in a time where people’s opinions seem to outweigh facts in quite a lot of forums. And I don’t think true crime is ever going to escape that.

Bala: True crime is so political, and it is one of the reasons Hannah and I have both been drawn to true crime, and the reason most people maybe are — because it’s like a perfect mirror to be held up to a society — like, the type of crime that’s happening there, the criminal justice system, the way in which we talk about crime, everything. So I think it is just inherently one of those things that is splintered, unfortunately, and incredibly fragmented in the way that people want to consume true crime, just like their news consumption.

There are true crime podcasts out there that are more conservative, and I think some people are drawn to those. There’s us, and maybe the way we would approach the same story is incredibly different. I think we increasingly live in a time where people want to hear what they like. They want to hear what they already think. And so people just self-select and it will splinter.

We’re not trying to unite people either. We hope that people who are on the opposite political spectrum would listen to our show with an open mind and take something away from it.

But we’re okay if it’s not, because we just want to say what we believe. And if it’s not divisive — if we’re not saying something — then what’s the point in doing it?

RedHanded releases new episodes each Thursday on all major podcasting platforms.