Tom’s Brown Body is the first true crime podcast from Texas Monthly and deals with a very Texan victim – at least on the surface. Over eight episodes, journalist Skip Hollingsworth tells the story of Tom Brown, a high school student who went missing in 2016 in the small town of Canadian. Two years later, the remains of his body were found, in a different location from where he was last seen, with no indication of how he died, or whether there was any foul play. The case remains unsolved, and in many ways this podcast raises more questions than it answers, although it feels like these questions might pave the way for further investigation.
The podcast is presented by Skip Hollandsworth, who works primarily with the written word, and it shows, since his delivery is very writerly here. It took me a while to get used to his emphatic cadence, especially his upward inflections at the end of sentences, but once I did, his drawling delivery was the perfect way to experience this story. It seems to put his subjects at ease too, allowing him to be personable and hard-hitting at the same time. This results in some very memorable interviews, as people readily welcome Skip into their personal space.
Part of Texas Monthly’s mission statement is dealing with Texas as both a unique culture and a diverse culture. We see this interest in the breadth of Texan experiences early on, when Skip interviews two people who seem quite out of place in conservative Canadian. First, we meet a fifth-generation Lebanese immigrant, whose parents arrived in the United States on Ellis Island. He’s now a multi-millionaire, and one of the most vocal locals in keeping the Tom Brown case alive. Then we meet the town journalist. One of the few public figures who’s openly Democrat in Hemphill County, she keeps a picture of Obama poised above her desk.
This taste for the diversity of Texan experiences extends to Skip’s portrait of Canadian itself. The very designation of “Canadian, Texas” is somewhat awkward, and immediately displaces us from our assumptions about what small town Texan life entails. Skip paints a very vivid picture of the town, partly through repeating “Tom’s Ride” – the route that Tom liked to take when driving around the town at night. Tom took his ride on the evening he vanished, so it’s especially resonant when Skip uses it to anchor his own experience of the town, which he maps by moving through the same trajectory that preceded Tom’s mysterious disappearance.
That vivid sense of place makes Tom’s Brown Body a real feat of suspense and storytelling – qualities that are surprisingly rare in true crime podcasts. This isn’t just down to Skip, though, since he’s fortunate to have an incredible side character here – Philip Klein, the six-foot-six private investigator that Tom’s mother, Penny Meek, hires to look into the crime when she suspects that the local sheriff, Nathan Lewis, might be involved. Not only is Philip Klein straight out of a hardboiled western noir novel, but he recorded all of his interviews, allowing Skip to use them in turn. He immediately develops a marked animosity for Lewis, and the case quickly turns into a competition between Klein, Lewis and Penny to discover the truth of it all.
None of these three characters seem entirely candid in the podcast, which places Skip in a challenging position as its captain. As a result, Tom’s Brown Body is quite circumspect about the case itself, mainly tracking the investigation as new clues emerge. Yet there is remarkably little evidence – and what evidence remains is both resonant and unreadable. In a neat miniature of the case itself, the evidence comes down to an inexplicable trajectory – a remote road where police progressively discover Tom’s backpack, then Tom’s phone in such pristine condition it couldn’t have been there since his disappearance, and then finally Tom himself.
This would seem to suggest a linear narrative, since it all occurs on one road, but these three discoveries are so splintered in space and time, and so hard to parse on their own terms, that they just cloud the case further. The road itself is also a significant distance from where Tom’s car was discovered, meaning that he would have had to thrash his way through fairly inhospitable terrain to get there. Even if that were the case, it still doesn’t explain why this farm-to-market road, a purely functional conduit, could ever have been a destination in itself.
The mystery of the crime, and the unlikelihood of the All-American Man being a victim, means that the case immediately generates its own folklore. To some extent, Tom’s Brown Body morphs from a true crime podcast to a sociological podcast as Skip traces the two strands of this folklore. The first revolves around suicide, since an inordinate number of people in Tom’s family have committed suicide, leading Lewis to speculate that his mother discovered he had suicided, and disposed of his body herself to avoid the shame. Suicide here becomes a kind of curse that is handed down over generations, rather than indicating a mental health crisis.
The second branch of folklore is more inchoate and revolves around queerness in its broadest form. Several people speculate that Tom might have been gay, or run away with an older man, although these formulations are so general that I wondered whether Tom was experiencing something completely beyond the town’s collective grasp, such as a trans, intersex or non-binary crisis. Skip keeps returning to a clothes store on the Canadian’s main street as the epicentre of these rumours, and it feels telling that this folklore first emerges from a joke the owner makes about a mannequin that has both male and female body parts.
This is the most interesting part of the podcast, since it poses a serious challenge to Texas Monthly’s commitment to Texas as a diverse culture. Tom’s disappearance quickly gives way to a series of cautionary folk tales about homosexuality, as if the town are dancing around a shared knowledge that nobody can articulate fully. It all comes down to an elliptical and incongruous fact – Tom chose to wear adult diapers – but nobody quite knows how to read this, not even his ex-girlfriend, forcing people to narrativise it back into their own normality.
These tensions come to a head in the final sequence – the only point where Skip breaks his trademark affability for a more hard-hitting approach. This takes the form of three questions. First, he asks Penny if she thought Tom was gay, and she answers in the negative by way of an all-Texan tableau – the time she once caught him looking at dancers at a football game. This must be the quintessential Texan scenario, and yet Penny deploys it here to shut down any possibility that her son might have experienced a more diverse or complicated identity.
Skip’s second question is what Penny would do if she found out Tom was gay. She doesn’t have an especially coherent answer this time, so the mournful theme music swells as she hesitates, its minor refrains finally finding their proper object in this inability to conceive of Tom as anything other than what the town of Canadian needed him to be. Finally, Skip asks one last question: “What are we missing here?” To the audience, at least, it’s clear – what’s missing is Penny and Canadian’s capacity to envisage a more complex Texan identity, which makes this an especially resonant case for Texas Monthly’s first foray into the true crime field.