99% Invisible | Podcast Review | October 2, 2015 | By

99% Invisible: “Dead Letter Office”

The Incident of the Cookbooks in the Mail is in the hands of the wrong detective, but it does sound really great.

Producer Samara Freemark once lost a box of cookbooks in the mail. She shipped two boxes full of all the things she couldn’t fit in the back of her station wagon across the country in a move. One box arrived; one did not. At least, not immediately.

A few weeks later, she received a neat brown envelope in the mail. Inside, there was a careful cutout of the address panel from her missing package, along with a note. This panel, it said, had become detached from her package during mailing. More time passed and, to Freemark’s great surprise, her box, now in tatters, arrived.

Inside, though, she found something strange: a copy of Sophia Loren’s Recipes and Memories cookbook. Apparently not a devotee of the mid-century supermodel and film star, Freemark didn’t own the book and is sure it wasn’t in the box when she first mailed it. And, what’s more, some of her books were missing.

What’s that you say? Yes, this does sound like a perfect, low-stakes-but-still-fascinating mystery that could be solved in the span of a thirty minute radio episode.

Freemark heads to “a nondescript suburban warehouse directly across from Six Flags,” also known as the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, lost mail is re-sorted for delivery or, if that isn’t feasible, sold at auction. She encounters bins of things to be sold: tennis rackets, bibles, electric guitars—and hears about even more lucrative grabs, like a painting with $5,000 worth of marijuana hidden behind its frame. There was even some talk about human remains. She then gets escorted from the premises; apparently, some part of her reporting process was “against postal policy.” It wasn’t clear, seemingly even to those throwing her out, what part of her reporting or which policy was at issue.

The question of what happened to her books, as well as how her package’s contents got jumbled, remains unanswered and, for the most part, unbroached. Which was disappointing.

On the heels of the excellent Gimlet/Radiotopia, Reply All/Song Exploder crossover episode, Roman Mars should have committed to another hybrid episode, this time with 99% Invisible and Mystery Show. Because boy-oh-boy does “Dead Letter Office” feel like a Starlee Kine caper.

It has the mystery, the charming subject matter, the tangents, the strange characters… and yet, it lacks. The problem, I think, is twofold:  1)  I suspect Samara Freemark didn’t have the resources behind her that Gimlet provides Starlee and her team, which limited the lengths to which she could go to find answers—these bizarre extremes are part of what make Mystery Show so damn good; and 2) Samara Freemark lacks Starlee’s (perhaps singular) charm, which might be described as where ingenue meets ingenuity.

But holy soundscapes Batman, did the episode bring its audio A-game. Listen to the layered voices as the “dead letter office” topic is introduced by producer Samara Freemark, right around 1:10. It’s nice, and only gets better: the occasional angelic, choral sweeps, the snippy editing of the postal bureaucrats, the rich, living textures of Freemark’s settings (with her mother, in the parking lot, inside the warehouse). For all my qualms about the case being in the hands of the wrong detective, it was a joyful listening experience. Special credit is due, as you might suspect, to Lullatone. For the curious, the songs were “Floating Away”, “hospitalarp”, and “docu-glitch.” I would call the band effervescent if the word sounded less hackneyed and I were less self-conscious, so, uh, take that for what you will.

Also, I am really going to miss the show’s TinyLetter spots when they shift to a MailChimp focus, which is weird to say about an ad, but, well, Roman’s right when he says that his boys Carver and Mazlo always have something to say.

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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