The allure of the unexplained mystery never fades. But while unsolved murder cases make up the bulk of this subgenre of true crime podcasts, many of the most memorable shows tell stories of a more ambiguous kind, in which people disappear and are never seen again, leaving behind a trail of contradictory clues and painful questions for their loved ones to reckon with.
These six shows chronicle mysterious vanishings of all kinds, some of them tragic crimes that expose systemic failures, others elaborate escapes staged by desperate people.
‘The Evaporated: Gone With the Gods’
Your trusted accountant dropping off the face of the earth right before tax day is a nightmare scenario, but for Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Tokyo Vice,” it was also the beginning of a much larger and stranger story. Adelstein’s accountant is just one of the multiple thousands of people who deliberately disappear without a trace each year in Japan, a phenomenon so common that there’s a word for it: jouhatsu, or “evaporated people.” In this fascinating and unpredictable series, Adelstein and his co-host, Shoko Plambeck, explore this phenomenon from numerous angles: people’s motivations for disappearing (like overwhelming debt or domestic violence), the “night moving” companies they call on to help, and the reasons this is easier to pull off in Japan. Adelstein and Plambeck are ideal guides on this often bizarre journey, mirroring listeners’ astonishment and confusion without compromising on their sharp and sensitive reporting.
Starter episode: “The Missing Accountant”
‘Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo’
In recent years, a long-overdue spotlight has been shone on Canada’s horrific and decades-long practice of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families, and placing them into abusive government-run schools. That history, coupled with the disturbing number of Indigenous women and girls whose disappearances go unsolved across the U.S. and Canada, is the backdrop for this harrowing series from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
In the 1970s, Cleo Nicotine Semaganis and her five siblings were all taken from their mother by child welfare workers in Saskatchewan and adopted into white families in the United States. Cleo was never seen again, and the rest of her family has since come to believe that she was murdered as she tried to hitchhike home. Hosted by the investigative reporter Connie Walker, “Finding Cleo” gives appropriate space to the family’s memories and their layers of trauma as they search for answers.
Starter episode: “Stolen. Murdered. Missing.”
‘In The Dark’
The arrival of “Serial” in the fall of 2014 set off an explosion of podcasts based on cold cases, many of them of questionable quality. But one of the better examples of rigorous audio reportage on unsolved crimes is “In The Dark.” In October of 1989, Jacob Wetterling, 11, was cycling home from a video store in his Minnesota hometown when he was abducted, and was never seen alive again. But in September of 2016, days ahead of the podcast’s premiere, his killer was finally arrested — a twist that didn’t change the content much. That’s because Madeleine Baran, the Peabody-winning lead reporter of “In The Dark,” and her colleagues focus less on the crime itself and more on the botched investigation, drilling down on exactly how the child’s killer was able to remain at large for 27 years.
Starter episode: “The Crime”
‘The Lady Vanishes’
In June of 1997, Marion Barter, a 51-year-old mother of two, boarded a plane to London from her hometown in Australia, embarking on what she described as her “trip of a lifetime” to Europe. Her family never saw her again, and after it emerged that she had quit her job, drained her bank account and sold her home, the authorities concluded that she had voluntarily abandoned her life. But that version of events didn’t make sense to her children, either emotionally or logistically, and this series unspools her daughter Sally’s yearslong quest to uncover the truth. Marion’s case remains unsolved to this day, but “The Lady Vanishes” is a satisfying listen, nonetheless, painting a much more complicated and sinister picture of what happened.
Starter episode: “Left Behind”
‘Father Wants Us Dead’
The story of John List, the New Jersey accountant who murdered his entire family before absconding in 1971, is packed with atmospheric details. (For example, the crime went undiscovered until neighbors noticed that the lights in the List mansion had been on for weeks and were gradually burning out). As its title suggests, this series from NJ.com explores the nightmarish experiences of List’s family members in the weeks leading up to the massacre before shifting its focus to examine how List slipped below the radar for the next 18 years. Despite a nationwide manhunt, List was able to adopt a new identity in Colorado, where he remarried and established himself as an ordinary, churchgoing suburbanite — until a segment of “America’s Most Wanted” changed everything.
Starter episode: “The Mansion Turned Morgue”
‘Missing in Alaska’
In October of 1972, a light plane transporting Hale Boggs (Democrat of Louisiana and majority leader in the House of Representatives) and Representative Nick Begich, Democrat, of Alaska, to a fund-raiser went missing during an Alaskan rainstorm. Despite an exhaustive search and nationwide media attention, the plane was never found; two months later the men were declared dead. Despite the lack of concrete answers in this decades-old case, the story’s wild twists and its general atmosphere of Watergate-era political unease are compelling. The second season is equally so, examining the story of a young doctor who went missing in downtown Manhattan the night before 9/11, and was subsequently counted among the victims of the World Trade Center attacks despite several pieces of information suggesting otherwise.
Starter episode: “The Disappearance”