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In 'The Keepers,' amateur sleuths are true crime's newest heroines

Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub are the new 60something rock stars of small-screen mystery, thanks to a Netflix documentary series, the latest true-crime story to feature unconventional investigators.

Abbie Schaub (left) and Gemma Hoskins in a scene from Netflix’s “The Keepers.”
Abbie Schaub (left) and Gemma Hoskins in a scene from Netflix’s “The Keepers.”Read moreNetflix

Murder, they posted.

Move over, Jessica Fletcher: Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub are the new sixtysomething rock stars of small-screen mystery, thanks to The Keepers. A Netflix true-crime documentary series that cost me an entire night's sleep not long ago — not even Netflix's Making a Murderer kept me watching till dawn — The Keepers features the two retirees and former high school classmates as partners in an effort to find out who killed their favorite English teacher.

The badly beaten body of 26-year-old Sister Catherine Cesnik, who had once taught English at what was then Baltimore's Archbishop Keough High School, was found in January 1970, nearly two months after she disappeared while shopping for an engagement present for her sister. Another young Maryland woman, Joyce Malecki, who vanished from a Glen Burnie shopping center a few days after Cesnik, later also was found dead, her throat cut. It's still not known whether the unsolved cases are related.

Hoskins, a gregarious former Maryland teacher of the year, and Schaub, a nurse who's the research arm of the team, run a Facebook page, The Keepers Official Group — Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki, where they continue to crowdsource for information about the cases.  Hoskins, for instance, recently asked for the group's help in finding the names of  other tenants in Cesnik's apartment complex in 1969. (Now that the show is finding a passionate audience, and the public group has more than 76,000 members, I suspect the size of the crowd may make their work harder, not easier.)

It's easy to see why filmmaker Ryan White would have used the pair, along with journalist Tom Nugent, to anchor this twisty murder mystery, which may or may not be tied to a sex-abuse scandal at Keough in which a Roman Catholic priest is accused of having preyed on students at the all-girls school.

The Keepers deals with both the murders and the abuse allegations (no criminal charges were ever filed, but since 2011, the archdiocese has reached settlements with 16 people in connection with the priest, according to the Baltimore Sun). The series is as complicated as it is addictive, and the details often are harrowing. Hoskins and Schaub — earnest, open-minded, and unwilling to give up — shine like beacons in a very dark story.

And who doesn't love to see amateurs making progress in cases where the authorities came up empty?

In the long-running Murder, She Wrote,  Fletcher (Angela Lansbury), a mystery novelist, frequently showed up law enforcement, just as Agatha Christie's Jane Marple had decades earlier.

To an extent, it's also the dynamic that helped make the first season of Sarah Koenig's Peabody Award-winning podcast Serial so popular a few years ago. Koenig, the podcast's host, had a reporting background and worked as a producer for public radio's This American Life when she set out to reinvestigate another Baltimore homicide, that of  Hae Min Lee. But as she explored whether Lee's former boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, might have been unfairly convicted of murdering Lee in 1999, she came across as a civilian, asking the questions anyone might ask and seeing where the answers took her.

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki wasn't a detective, either, when he conducted a series of interviews with wealthy murder suspect Robert Durst (in what proved to be a foolhardy arrangement on Durst's part). The suspicious disappearance of the real estate heir's first wife had inspired Jarecki's fictionalized film All Good Things, with Ryan Gosling. Durst, who had escaped a murder conviction in Galveston, Texas, in the death of a neighbor whose body he had acknowledged dismembering, cooperated as the subject of Jarecki's 2015 HBO documentary series, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, only to be arrested on first-degree murder charges in yet another death the day before the Emmy-winning series' electrifying finale. Durst, off-camera but still wearing a microphone, was heard to mutter,  "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

True detectives — the kind who are paid to investigate and aren't eligible for Emmys — don't generally get moments like that, much less the opportunity to pursue a single, thorny case for years at a time, following every possible lead to the end.

That's not entirely a drawback.

There were moments, watching The Keepers, when I began to wonder about the growing number of suspects in Cesnik's death, and about how much the need to see conspiracy in what might be coincidence was driving the narrative.

I was thinking, too,  about information overload as I listened to Brian Reed's podcast series S-Town, which reportedly set a podcast record for downloads — more than 10 million in the first four days — after all seven episodes were released March 28.

Billed as a production of Serial and This American Life, it begins, like many a true-crime story, with someone reporting a murder he believes requires investigation. That John B. McLemore, the man who wants the investigation, is a clock expert with a dazzling gift for profane self-expression probably has as much to do as anything with the eventual decision by Reed, a producer at This American Life, to head to Woodstock, Ala., to check out his story.

(The title comes from McLemore's preferred name for his town, which won't be spelled out here.)

I won't spoil S-Town for you, but I think it's safe to say McLemore's story has a twist that makes this a very different show from Serial or The Keepers.

Novelistic in scope, S-Town is a perfect example of how effective audio can be in storytelling. It also digs so deep I began to feel uncomfortable, as though I knew more than I had any right to about people who, for the most part, had not asked for this level of scrutiny, even if they'd presumably consented to it.

Maybe not all rocks need turning over?

Some do, though. Related or not, the ugliness uncovered in The Keepers needs light and air, and the victims, living and dead, deserve that we know the truth.

It's good to know Hoskins and Schaub are still on the case.