Trace keeps momentum to help solve cold case

Cold cases are hot commodities. Rachael Brown, journalist and host of ABC’s first true crime podcast Trace, is aware that “audiences are so ravenous for true crime…that podcasters forget, and treat the crime like a spectator sport, and these are real people and real lives.” But Brown never forgets. 

In the original six-episode run, Brown’s hit podcast pivoted around an effort to find answers to the unsolved murder of Maria James, a single mother fatally stabbed in her Thornbury home almost forty years ago. A year after the podcast was released, this hope continues in the form of Brown’s debut book, Trace: Who Killed Maria James? 

Broken into four parts, Trace appeals to an existing listenership by offering a behind-the-scenes look at how the podcast was made. For those unfamiliar with the case, Brown begins the text in 1980 with detective Ron Iddles entering his first job on the homicide squad. Iddles, now retired, remains marred by the unsolved mystery; more than anything, Iddles desperately wants to find answers for Maria and the sons she left behind. 

Brown now faces this same affliction. Upon receiving permission from Mark and Adam James to investigate their mother’s case for the podcast, Brown balances this blessing and burden: “Mark sees it as his final shot for an answer. If this podcast doesn’t succeed, his mother’s murder will never be solved.”

Brown details how she heads down endless investigative “rabbit holes” and leads begin to read like a prestige drama: she uncovers corruption in the Catholic church, priests with literal bloodstained hands and conspiracy theories involving ritual cult murders. Brown learns about mitochondrial DNA with international scientists and interviews various sexual assault victims abused as children, including Adam James (who has cerebral palsy and Tourette’s). 

In Trace, the author grapples with understanding the limitations and grief associated with working on a case that’s decades old. She can’t just flick on the internet to find out details of potential suspects and there’s far more emotion involved: “This is the toll of cold cases: they’re never that temperature for those affected.” As a dogged court reporter, Brown has seen “the bad: violence, greed, depravity. You name it.” But the podcast project isn’t a story that can be rapidly filed; Trace requires a longer, deeper more intense investigation.  

“On the frenetic news cycle this would be impossible, spending this amount of time teasing out what will probably amount to less than five minutes of usable audio. But I’ll sit here all day if it means I can show him (Adam) I’m taking him seriously…I listen, sympathise and try to offer some solace, but it’s pathetically inadequate.” 

Herein lies the integrity of Trace. Brown underscores the investigation with authority and a vulnerability often left out of more pulpy true crime texts. Describing the “creeping bonds of journalism”, Brown acknowledges she’s devoted more time to “the life of a woman I never met than I have to my own”. 

Text messages and emails between victims or Ron Iddles and the Trace team, as well as Brown’s private notes, serve as stylistic preludes to different sections of the book: “You gave Adam a voice” a message from Mark to Brown reads. Temporal shifts between the original police investigation, the “research grunt-work”, the podcast release and the aftermath are all detailed here. The application of more literary techniques — like passages where Brown runs through her thoughts while on an actual run — feel a little clunky. But the power of this investigation lies in how Brown endlessly shines a light on injustices. 

Trace is more than merely a canny marketing stunt; this book is Brown’s right of reply to those engaged with true crime podcasts. It picks up on issues left out of the podcast, revealing pressures that “frustrated” ABC bosses put on her team: “We’ve been told to tie things up. If only it was that easy. This mess gets murkier and more complicated the more people we talk to.” More significantly, Brown addresses listeners who approach Trace — and by association all cold case texts — as entertainment. To those who complain about by “spoilers” or the podcast’s lack of resolution, Brown makes her point clear:

“My response to this is, Tough. This is real life for a family who has been waiting 37 years for answers…So this is news. It’s not just some juicy tidbit to be enjoyed by listeners who subscribe to Trace. But therein lies the quandary: for many listeners, true-crime podcasts are entertainment, whereas I feel like we’d be doing Trace a disservice if we treated it that way.” 

Throughout this book, Brown reiterates that the team behind Trace planned to create a “forensic and compassionate investigation” with real impact. While neither the book or podcast offer answers into Maria James’s death, the cold case now has some heat. 

Late last year the Victoria Police reopened an investigation into the Maria James case. For this, and Brown’s dedication to exposing the various unethical ways we often engage with true crime, Trace is a success. 

Review of Trace, Who Killed Maria James? Published in The Australian (8 March 2019).

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