With theaters shuttered, concerts canceled, sports forbidden, and nightlife ground to a halt, all thanks to COVID-19, millions are turning to online streaming media for entertainment and a little escapism. Several streaming services have responded with expanded offerings and extended free-trial periods. Here are just a few we thought our fellow mystery, thriller, crime genre-lovers might appreciate.
Acorn specializes in British, Canadian, and Australian shows and is home to some terrific mystery and crime series, including Midsomer Murders, Murdoch Mysteries, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Doc Martin, Agatha Raisin, Vera, Line of Duty, Manhunt, and Hercule Poirot, as well as Acorn originals such as Queens of Mystery, Mystery Road, Foyle's War, and Deadwater Fell (the new series The Guardian calls "Broadchurch only more irresistible"), which premieres on April 6, 2020. Acorn has extended its usual 7-day free trial to 30 days with code FREE30.
Acorn.tv ($5.99/month after the trial period ends)
New subscribers to Netflix receive a 30-day free trial so they can begin binge watching all our favorites from Sherlock to Narcos to Longmire to Better Call Saul to Broadchurch, plus a host of true crime series like The Confession Tapes and Cold Case Files. There's a gamut of movies for all tastes as well: the newly released Lost Girls starring Amy Ryan as a mother on a crusade to find her missing daughter; Martin Scorsese's 2019 hitman tale The Irishman starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci; the slapstick Murder Mystery set on a yacht with Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler; and Agatha and the Truth of Murder, a dramatized depiction of the real Christie's 11-day disappearance. What's more, Netflix and Google Chrome have launched Netflix Party, a platform that allows people to view shows and films "together" from separate couches with real-time chat enabled.
Netflix.com ($8.99/month to $15.99/month after the trial period ends)
CBS All Access
The streaming subscription arm of CBS has been drawing buzz for original programs like Star Trek: Picard and Interrogation, but it also offers a host of oldies-but-goodies sure to give comfort to viewers in times like these. There's Perry Mason, MacGuyver (original and updated), Hawaii Five-O (original and updated), The Twilight Zone, CSI, and all 530 episodes of every NCIS show ever. CBS just announced that in lieu of our troubled times, they've extended their 7-day free trial to 30 days for those who subscribe by April 23, 2020, and use promo code GIFT.
cbs.com/all-access ($5.99/month with ads, $9.99/month without after the trial period ends)
Hulu is also offering a 30-day free trial to new subscribers for their on-demand service (not to be confused with their live streaming service Hulu Live). Of interest to mystery and crime fans is the TV series Fargo, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman (inspired by, but not to be confused with the Coen Brothers 1996 classic film); the rollicking espionage thriller Killing Eve with Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer; and the terrific long-running British series starring Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect. And for those of us who enjoy a little woo woo with their mystery there's Castle Rock, the spooky series based on the stories of Stephen King; David Lynch's cult classic Twin Peaks; and, every season of Scully and Mulder's FBI exploits in the X-Files.
Hulu.com ($5.99/month with ads, $11.99/month without after the trial period ends)
HBO has several excellent shows only available behind their paywall, including all three seasons of True Detective, the critically acclaimed adaptation of the DC comic The Watchmen; Sharp Objects based on Gillian Flynn's novel by the same name; and Big Little Lies, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley. It's also home to full runs of classics like The Sopranos, The Wire, and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. New subscribers receive a 7-day free trial.
HBO.com ($14.99/month after the trial period ends)
Sling TV recently announced their "Stay in and Sling" promotion, making access to news, plus a selection of thousands of its shows and movies available to viewers with no paid Sling TV account required. "To stay informed in these uncertain times, Americans need access to news from reputable sources," Warren Schlichting, Sling TV's group president, stated in a recent release from the company. To this end Sling is making the 24/7 news channel ABC News Live available at no cost. Even more content is available for those who wish to subscribe, and Sling TV is offering a 14-day "quarantine" free trial offer that include its premium news content on Sling Blue.
Sundance Now is a service to consider, especially for true crime aficionados or lovers of crime shows from other lands (and who aren't put off by viewing their crime with subtitles). Sundance boasts several true crime offerings such as The Preppy Murder, Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle, Aileen, and Killing for Love. You can also watch series Little Drummer Girl (based on John le Carré's novel), McMafia (Is it an English Sopranos?), and the strong French detective show The Red Shadows, the four-episode Australian detective drama Dead Lucky, Scandi crime drama Wisting; and the slick and thrilling Julia Stiles' vehicle Riviera. Sundance Now is extending its free trial period to 30 days with code SUNDANCENOW30.
Sundancenow.com ($6.99/month after trial period ends)
Britbox boasts the biggest streaming collection of British television anywhere and it has extended its usual weeklong trial to a 30-day free trial for those interested in verifying their claim. Anglophiles can enjoy the popular series Death in Paradise, Wallander, and DSI Bancroft, as well as cozier fare such as Shakespeare & Hathaway Private Investigators and Father Brown.
BritBox.com ($6.99/month after the trial period ends)
Other Ad-Supported Free Streaming Services
The following streaming services are always free and may also be worth checking out.
Free Streaming Services Partnered with Public Libraries
There is a good chance that if you own a library card (or if you are a college student or professor), you may also have access to free streaming media thanks to your library system's partnership with either Kanopy or Hoopla. If you aren't sure, you can plug in your library at either provider's site to check if your library is part of their system.
Audible.com and Amazon Prime Video (for the Kids)
This Amazon-owned company offers new subscribers a 30-day free trial, and recently announced Audible Stories, a completely free library of Audible stories for children and teens that the company says will be available without cost "for as long as schools are closed." A few recommendations for the young and the young at heart include any of the titles in the Ellery Queen Jr., series, Chris Grabenstein's high-energy caper Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers, R.L. Stine's Camp Red Moon, Ashli St. Armant's Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons, Dan Gutman's fun spy series The Genius Files, Jon Scieszka's Who Done It?, and Bill Pronzini's excellent The Peaceful Valley Crime Wave. Its sister company Amazon Prime Video also announced a similar initiative, making 40 children shows and another 80 movies through IMDb TV free to all. You can see the newly free content available here.
Audible.com ($14.95/month after the free trial period ends)
Broadway HD is also offering some sweet relief to theater lovers who no longer have theaters to go to. Now through April 23, 2020, a special promo through Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles extends the usual 7-day trial to a 30-day one with the promo code GPHFM. Choose the $8.99 monthly option and enter the code at checkout.
Illustration credit: Getty Images Stock
Crimes so incredible, they could only be true—and the true crime authors who bring them to life
Recently I reread a favorite true crime classic, Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money, a book I loved recommending when I owned Aunt Agatha's bookstore. I first picked it up as a teenager, as a friend’s mother had known the victim on the horse show circuit. As I read—indeed, inhaled this book—much of which I’d forgotten as I first read it in 1976, I began thinking about why this book is such a classic.
It’s the story of Joan Robinson Hill, a Houston socialite in the '50s who loved horses and eventually married the plastic surgeon John Hill, whose love was music. The outgoing Joan and the shy and introverted John were not a good match, but Joan seemed to love him. When she became volcanically ill and quickly died in her mid-thirties, all suspicions turned to her husband—especially those of the Joan's father, the powerful oilman Ash Robinson.
The chance for an autopsy was bungled, so the case of suspected poisoning was never proven. Many theories of a cause of death were batted about and Hill was charged with murder. Hill, who married another woman soon after Joan’s death, was acquitted but was later shot down in his own home. Most believe the killing was orchestrated by Ash Robinson, but it has never been proven. Thompson makes good cases for the reasons and motivations—and perpetrators—of both deaths. The story he spins would be rejected in a respectable work of fiction. It’s too incredible.
Blood and Money is steeped in the feel and atmosphere of Houston, and captures the life of socialite Joan in an indelible and heartbreaking fashion, and that’s the part that has stayed in my reader’s mind since its first publication in 1976. This book is a classic for a couple reasons. The research, as well as the actual writing, are exceptional. Thompson, who was Houston born and bred and who made his bones reporting on JFK’s assassination, considered himself as much a pioneer of the “nonfiction novel” as Truman Capote, and this book makes an excellent case for that. But even more so, what ties these two great books together, aside from them being true crime books, is the fact that they are based on character. Joan’s character is beautifully drawn and she lives again in these pages, but so is that of John Hill, the self-involved egotist who probably was responsible for the convenient death of his wife.
It’s also the story of a father’s obsessive grief—grief affects everyone, rich and poor, but the rich have the means to follow through and seek justice, whatever that may mean to them. Ash Robinson was a pain in the backside for a countless parade of lawyers and cops, and in the end, he achieves a kind of satisfaction.
You never forget the people in this book or their dilemmas and personal lives. That’s a writing achievement no matter how you look at it. The second half of the book is also a look at the other side of the tracks—the lives of thieves, junkies, and prostitutes and the many wrong turns in their lives that lead them to a point where they agreed to take part in murder. Thompson wasn’t writing a social polemic, but you could look at this book, and the yawning gap in social class and its consequences, and perceive it that way. All that needs to be said in the end is that a prostitute and a madam end up in jail and Ash Robinson does not. This book is a finely honed look at a specific set of people, their crimes, the city of Houston.
Then I started thinking, of course, about other outstanding true crime books. This genre is considered a bit tacky and déclassé—with tomes opining on theories of crimes more highly regarded than the straight-up recounting of events these books typically specialize in. The other thing true crime books specialize in, as much as any other, is a look at the way life is lived. They examine class, economics, thwarted dreams and aspirations, and of course, the twisted and dark side of the human psyche.
There are two true crime books that can be taken as a given, classics that most every crime reader has read: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me (1980). (In my husband’s opinion Rule’s book is the greatest true crime book ever written, and I just may agree with him). But there’s more to true crime…the thread that ties my favorite true crime books together is their incredible explications of character. Here are a few.
The Michigan Murders (1976), by Edward Keyes, is structured like a whodunit, which sets it apart from other true crime books. It follows the crimes of John Norman Collins, who killed co-eds around Eastern Michigan University in 1968. Being a Michigander and owning a Michigan bookstore, I heard many stories through the years about people who lived near the killer, went to class with him, or knew one of the girls. The book is absolutely terrifying and perfectly told.
Fatal Vision (1983), by Joe McGinniss, is the story of a Green Beret who slaughters his family. Initially, the father of the victim is convinced of his son-in-law’s innocence, but as he follows the clues and the police investigation, he realizes how guilty his son-in-law, Jeffrey MacDonald, is. Also notable for introducing into popular jargon the idea of the “bushy haired stranger.” It's a beautiful portrait of a grieving father, as well as of the killer.
Mafia Princess: Growing up in Sam Giancana’s Family (1985), by Antoinette Gianacana and investigative reporter Thomas C. Renner, is a trashy treasure. No one else could recount this story of growing up and marrying into the mafia. It’s an unforgettable portrait of a life where moral boundaries are sketchy as are the ways “business” is conducted.
Masquerade: A True Story of Seduction, Compulsion and Murder (1988), by Lowell Cauffiel is, more than any other book on this list, a real look at class divisions in America. Grosse Pointe, Michigan, psychologist Alan Canty was murdered by prostitute Dawn Spens and her pimp, after getting was caught up in a rough side of life where he had no expertise. As with any good mystery, it’s a story of how those around Dr. Canty actually knew very little about him.
The Blooding (1989), by true crime giant Joseph Wambaugh—who is perhaps best known for The Onion Field (1974)—pens a riveting account of two brutal killings in an English village in 1983 and 1986, and how the killer was caught by the then-new process of DNA testing. The police took the blood of 4,000 men in the area to find the killer. As always, Wambaugh’s portraits of the police investigating the case are unforgettable.
And I Don’t Want to Live this Life: A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder (1996), by Deborah Spungen, is a book I’ve never forgotten. It's a telling by Spungen of her daughter Nancy Spungen’s life and death. Nancy is probably best known for being murdered by Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, but as her mother recounts, she was difficult from an infant and terrorized her family. It’s a devastating story of mental illness as well as of a mother’s grief. The scene in which Sid visits the suburban Spungen household is not to be missed.
She Wanted It All (2005) is by Kathryn Casey, an author who is, to my mind, second only to Ann Rule in her research, careful story setup, and drive to find a kind of literary justice for a victim that burns in her like a fire. This story of Celeste Beard, a narcissist who abandons her children in foster homes when they are impeding her lifestyle, as well as her marriage to the sweet, clueless Steve Beard, whom she ultimately murders, is genuinely heartbreaking. Casey’s explication of their lives is meticulous and devastating.
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2012), by Paul French, is another story of a father’s grief. It’s set in 1937 Peking, where British schoolgirl Pamela Werner is murdered. Her father, who has burned many bridges, personal and professional, was devoted to his daughter and is ceaseless in his quest to find her killer. He’s frequently rebuffed by the authorities. Like The Michigan Murders, this is structured like a whodunit, and the ultimate outcome would be rejected in a novel. It’s also gorgeously written.
And finally, it's worth mentioning that Thompson and Rule have a few other worthy classics. For Thompson, it’s Serpentine (1979), a chase through Asia following the many crimes of Charles Sobrahj. For Rule, the unforgettable Small Sacrifices (1986), the story of Diane Downs, who kills her own children so she can nab a new boyfriend.