Horror, glamour … and heartache: how a hit true-crime podcast divided a family

“True crime” now plays a huge role in the more lucrative parts of the storytelling business. Across podcasts, nonfiction books and television series, this grim, often gory, reality genre is crucial to filling schedules and providing “content”. But even when the crime concerned is a cobwebbed cold case, set back in the mists of time, the impact of a fresh investigation can be brutal.

For Tash Cutts, it was deeply unsettling to learn that a hit podcast series uncovering the truth about her great-grandmother’s murder was under way. “The danger of this kind of storytelling is that it is creating new victims along the way,” said the 33-year-old, who lives in London.

The No 1 hit podcast tells the story of the killing of Dr Naomi Dancy, initially attributed to her traumatised brother, Maurice Tribe.

The fact the podcast, Ghost Story, went on to win awards, as well as a worldwide audience, and that it is to be celebrated again on Monday evening in Ghost Story Live, staged at a London theatre, has made coping even harder. Especially as the show casts suspicion on her revered late great-grandfather, Dr John Dancy, known to the family as Feyther.

The podcast centres on the violent deaths of his wife, Dr Naomi Dancy, and her brother, Maurice Tribe, a first world war veteran, in Richmond, London, in 1937. The Dancy family has always believed, as the police told them then, that the shell-shocked and unstable Tribe had shot his sister through both eyes while she slept. Her husband and fellow doctor, Feyther, had escaped harm by playing dead, before a disturbed Tribe slit his own throat inside a locked bathroom.

The terrible story of the shooting of a pioneering female doctor and the suicide of her troubled brother had particular resonance for journalist Tristan Redman because he is married to another of the Dancys’ great-granddaughters, Kate. By extraordinary chance, the deaths happened in the house next door to his childhood home, a building he suspected was haunted. Prompted by the eerie coincidence, Redman asked his wife’s family, including Kate’s cousin Cutts, to take part in a podcast investigation.

Naomi Dancy was shot through both eyes as she slept. Ghost Story’s investigation concluded that her husband, John Dancy, right, had committed the crime. Photograph: Courtesy of Tash Cutts

“I’d heard my family talk about this when I was growing up, but only ever loosely knew the details,” Cutts told the Observer. “But, as I was very close with my grandfather, I’d been reluctant to make him relive any of the trauma by pressing him.”

After initially agreeing to help, Cutts pulled out once she realised the finger of blame might point at her great-grandfather. She asked Redman to stop making a podcast she felt was “sensationalising” a story that was too close to home.

“He told me this deeply shocking news whilst recording my reaction on tape. I felt completely blindsided and shocked,” said Cutts this weekend. “My first thought was that if Naomi was murdered by her husband, she was likely a victim of prolonged domestic abuse. The idea of any woman going through that, and what it could have meant for my grandad, was so awful to comprehend.”

Ghost stories are a powerful expression of our real, daylight fears. And as podcasting has become a bigger part of the entertainment landscape, so stories about a putative spirit world are among the most popular. Redman’s award-winning podcast first attracted fans of other spooky shows, including the BBC’s chart-topper Uncanny, but the thrills he offers listeners over seven episodes are less to do with the supernatural and more to do with that equally age-old source of drama – family secrets.

In the first episode, Redman introduces three narrative strands; a ghost story, a murder story and his wife’s family’s story. But the plot could have been billed by the podcast’s makers, Wondery, and their production team at Pineapple Street Studios as having almost everything: a poltergeist, a murder, espionage, a seance and a big dose of deception.

There was even, incredibly, the involvement of a celebrated author of detective fiction – Dorothy L Sayers, creator of aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey – as well as a sprinkling of modern-day Hollywood glamour in the shape of actor Hugh Dancy, another direct descendant of the murdered woman, and the husband of film star Claire Danes.

Shortly after the murder, Sayers had alerted the police of her suspicions when she received an odd phone call from a stranger – John Dancy. Almost 90 years later, his great-grandson, Hugh, performs lines from her transcript of the call on Redman’s podcast.

Police at the house in Richmond, west London, right, in the wake of the crime. Photograph: TopFoto

If that sounds like an infallible recipe, so it proved. After four episodes, the show reached No 1 on the Apple podcasts chart in Britain and America, and it was one of the Observer’s best listens of last year. Now the live show at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is promising “an interactive unravelling of the mystery” of Naomi’s murder, adding that now “her husband Feyther is on trial!”

But Cutts feels that Redman, who is also a reporter for the news channel Al Jazeera in France, was not straight with her. “I had no reason not to trust him,” she said. “It wasn’t until the second time he interviewed me – this time at his family home in Paris – that he revealed how Naomi’s murder would form the central pillar of the narrative, and also his belief that it was her husband who was in fact the real perpetrator.”

Redman denies any subterfuge. “Every interview was conducted with a producer who had flown in from the US and was introduced as such,” he said. “Release forms were prepared by lawyers and signed by interview subjects at the time of our initial interviews.” He added that interviewees who changed their minds later were left out, despite their legal consent.

The experience has made Cutts examine her own taste for true crime. “Previously, my morbid fascination with the genre focused on absorbing all the grisly stories and wondering about the mentality of the perpetrators behind these awful crimes. I had never thought much about the real people behind these cases,” she said.

Redman said that he understood Cutts’s qualms. He feels this is a key theme of his podcast. And he understood, he said, the high stakes.

“I knew from the beginning that the process of working through this with members of my wife’s family – of my family – was at times going to be challenging. Some family members were less happy with the final result and I don’t begrudge them expressing their disapproval. But the process was emotional, and it required a ton of patience and forbearance and faith in me from many of my relatives. I’m extraordinarily grateful for that.”