LISTEN: Fur & Loathing hosted by Nicky Woolf
READ: One Perfect Couple by Ruth Ware
READ: A Game of Lies by Claire Mackintosh
WATCH: Guilt, Season Three on PBS

While Fur & Loathing sounds like it could be a reality show about the real housewives of Moscow or a PETA-activist cell, it’s actually a podcast about a chemical-weapons attack at a furry convention attended by 4,500 people outside of Chicago in 2014. “Furry” as in people who achieve their fullest self-expression by dressing in plush animal costumes like the ones worn by sports-team mascots.

Podcaster Nicky Woolf, who formerly covered Internet culture for The Guardian, wanted to investigate the lack of closure in the case. No one has been arrested for what was essentially a chlorine-bomb attack in the hotel stairwell. Due to a rapid evacuation, there were no fatalities, but people were hospitalized and injured, and, as Woolf points out, this same gas was used in World War I to horrific effect. It didn’t help that there were issues with the way local police handled evidence from the scene.

Woolf wants listeners to see furries as human beings rather than punchlines, so he interviews attendees, gets them to explain furry culture, and is aided in his work by Patch o’ Furr, a dogged furry investigator. Midwest FurFest is the community’s big chance to express their “fursonas” through strikingly elaborate costumes, so it seems especially cruel that what should have been a joyful gathering for a vulnerable population was ruined. Nine years later, Woolf attended the 2023 convention, where the number of participants had grown to more than 15,000. If the perpetrator of the attack was trying to kill the furry spirit, they obviously failed.

But was anti-furry fury the motive? Much of the community leans progressive as well as L.G.B.T.Q., but it contains a far-right fringe that immediately drew the interest of police and the F.B.I. Picture a furry wearing a Nazi-style armband and you get the idea. This is where it really gets strange—well, stranger—and Woolf’s six-episode investigation becomes as compelling as his sensitive inquiry into the subculture itself.

For mystery writers, reality TV is a crime waiting to happen. The artificiality of the premise, especially with a Survivor type of show, relieves the writer of the need to come up with a real-world setup for their story—just assemble the right mix of contestants, put them in a competitive situation defined by some nutty rules, and let the mayhem begin. It’s all very Agatha Christie; And Then There Were None, with its shadowy manipulations by an unknown puppet master, could be a template for these shows.

Ruth Ware and Clare Mackintosh, two accomplished English mystery writers, have taken a whack at the same piñata with books that feature elimination shows involving normal people, i.e., not Kardashians or people with exceptional talent. The show in Ware’s book, One Perfect Couple, is of the romance-in-an-exotic-location variety, in which five telegenic couples undergo a series of challenges on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean to determine which has the strongest bond—kind of the mutant great-grandchild of The Newlywed Game. The problem is, it’s a pilot, and the show’s creator is as dodgy as they come, so when a storm devastates the island, the contestants are stranded with rapidly depleting supplies and variable coping skills.

Once you get past the idea that the sensible heroine, a research virologist (!), would drop everything to join her aspiring-actor boyfriend on a desert island where her every moment would be recorded on-camera, and fail to do due diligence for participating in such a show, it’s easy to just go with the flow. One Perfect Couple is a high-end beach read, but you may want to stick to dry land while enjoying it.

Though it too focuses on a reality show, Mackintosh’s A Game of Lies is the second in a series featuring the Welsh police detective Ffion Morgan. So when things go awry with Exposure, a brand-new elimination show filmed in Wales, the structure of a procedural kicks in.

Exposure quickly turns out to be a bait and switch for the seven contestants. They’d been told the show would follow a survivalist format, but once shooting begins, they learn that each has a shameful secret that will be revealed to the audience, unless they can guess someone else’s secret first. Is the public humiliation really worth the almost $130,000 prize the unscrupulous producer dangles in front of them?

Early on, Ffion tosses off my favorite line about the genre: “Reality TV is the modern-day equivalent of taking your knitting to an execution.” If either of these books discourages a single person from signing up for one of these shows, or even watching one, Ware and Mackintosh will have performed a public service.

Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives in Guilt.

Sláinte to anyone who’s gotten a grip on every plot strand of Guilt, the knotty but slyly appealing and ambitious Scottish show created by Neil Forsyth that’s just finished its run with Season Three. This is Tartan noir at its tartest, so it’s worth the effort to follow the misadventures of two quite different brothers, Max McCall (Mark Bonnar), a scheming, single-minded lawyer, and the younger Jake (Jamie Sives), a good-natured pop-music obsessive with a man-bun.

In the series’s first episode, Jake accidentally ran over a dying man (everything has an extra twist in this show—Jake was an inebriated Max’s designated driver), and the subsequent fallout from the cover-up has led them to many unsavory places, from Edinburgh’s criminal underworld in the Leith district to the U.S. to prison and back to Edinburgh.

Their home turf is especially dangerous for the McCalls, since Maggie Lynch (Phyllis Logan, formerly the kind Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey), the wife of Max’s dead crime-lord nemesis, is doing a brutally efficient job of upholding the Lynch legacy. She wants Max and Jake dead for a variety of reasons, and the feeling is mutual.

But despite their tendency to betray each other and being semi-hapless, never count these two out. Guilt gets extra points for a superb soundtrack that could have been assembled by Jake himself.

Fur & Loathing is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts. Guilt is available to stream on PBS

Lisa Henricksson reviews mysteries at AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City