There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our new column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
On November 29th, 1970, a family discovered the body of a woman in Norway’s Isdalen Valley in Bergen. It was a strange scene: the body was burned, and an autopsy later found at least 50 sleeping pills in her stomach. Investigators discovered a pair of suitcases at a nearby train station, loaded with money, clothing without labels, eight fake passports, and some other objects, only to have the case abruptly closed.
To this date, the so-called Isdal Woman has never been identified, and the case has stoked the interest of journalists, mystery authors, and amateur detectives, curious as to how she ended up in the valley. There have been many theories over the years: was she a spy for the Soviet Union or Mossad? A sex worker? Someone in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Earlier this year, Marit Higraff of Norway’s public radio service NRK and Neil McCarthy of the BBC launched Death in Ice Valley, a true crime podcast that sought to uncover the Isdal Woman’s identity once and for all. It’s a gripping true-crime story, one that delves into the remaining evidence, while also presenting an intriguing picture of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, as well as Norway’s role during the Cold War. It’s a strong, nonfiction companion to the last entry in this column, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold.
Some spoilers ahead for the podcast.
The series recently concluded its 10-episode run, and and helped bring the case and the case of the Isdal woman to a global audience. Higraff explained to The Verge that she is part of NRK’s investigative unit, and began working on the case almost two years ago. “We wanted to do some true-crime stories, we wanted to investigate, and we wanted to go further than the other true-crime stories,” she says. “We didn’t want to just tell a good story — there are many good stories out there — but we wanted to make a difference as journalists.”
The case of the Isdal Woman was well-known in Norway, and it presented a good opportunity for the investigative unit to take a look at, putting their skills and now-commonplace technology to work. “Our thought was that with modern technology — methods like DNA — so many things can be done today, which wasn’t possible in 1970.” A year into their investigation, they began to get emails from all around the world as people who had been interested in the case for decades got in touch to share tips, clues, or theories. Higraff noted that a 2017 BBC article about the case was read widely, bringing a huge international audience to their project. “It kind of exploded,” she explains. “We got emails all over the world, people reading the story and wanting to know more about the case.” Shortly thereafter, the BBC World Service and McCarthy joined the project to develop it into a podcast series as a follow-up to The Assassination, which covered the life and death of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The result paired Higraff’s investigative background and resources with McCarthy’s documentary experience, and they soon put some new techniques to work. By looking closely at the woman’s teeth and taking isotope readings, they were able to determine with a reasonable amount of certainty where she came from — central or eastern Europe, likely Germany — but also that she spent her teenage years further west, during the Second World War. They also interviewed people in the area who had interacted with the woman — hotel staff and local fishermen — and scrutinized her clothing and eyewitness accounts of her activities in the days prior to her death.
Higraff chalked up the decades of fascination about the death to the fact that the mystery “has everything in it. It’s riddle upon riddle. It’s a woman found in such strange circumstances, out in the field in a desolate valley, killed or died under horrific circumstances, and obviously, someone did a lot of effort to take away all traces of her identity.” The series falls short of positively identifying the woman — there are echoes of the ending of Serial’s story about Adnan Syed here — but Higraff’s efforts appear to have uncovered a wealth of information about the woman’s life, bringing us one step closer to understanding who she really was. While the podcast has now concluded, she notes that it isn’t the end of their investigation: they’re continuing to try to discover the Isdal Woman’s identity, and will provide updates down the road as the investigation progresses. Hopefully, she says, they “can bring her home to where she belongs.”