Warsaw, Missouri, a city deep in the Ozarks with a population of 2,000, is home to the American paddlefish, a breed that dates back to prehistoric times. Identifiable by their pointed snouts and reaching up to seven feet in length, paddlefish produce large quantities of eggs that taste remarkable like Russian Sevruga caviar, which is among the most expensive in the world. In the 2000s, black traders from Russia descended on Warsaw to catch female paddlefish, extract their eggs and send them home. In the True Crime series Paddlefish caviar heistfood writer and journalist Helen Hollyman travels to the small Missouri town to tell this story.
There are few things a true crime series loves more than sending metropolitan types to rural backwaters to solve a mystery while embarking on a fake personal journey. It’s a trope that was delightfully dispatched in The Onion’s parody podcast, A very deadly murder, in which a big-city production crew blunders around a provincial town where “no one has HBO.” Hollyman is keen to point out that she’s a country girl at heart, having recently moved from New York to Texas. Nevertheless, there are times in the early stages of Paddlefish caviar heist where the tone seems a bit off.
Against a silly, booming soundtrack, we hear Hollyman and his producer check Google Maps as they drive to the town’s sparsely populated main square, where they observe locals eyeing them suspiciously. So far, so condescending. But then she, and by extension we, get to know Warsaw and its surroundings: the city is located next to a vast reservoir called the Lake of the Ozarks where paddlefish can be found. There, our host takes a boat trip with Rick, owner of a local restaurant which is the place to be during snag season, the six-week period when paddle fishing is legal.
In the first three episodes, the story told by Hollyman is notable as it moves from Warsaw to Soho to London to Kaspiysk in Russia, the site of a 1996 bombing that has long been blamed on Chechen terrorists (Hollyman proposes a different theory). We also get an illuminating history of Russian caviar dating back to the time of Peter the Great, when it began to be served at state banquets and was given as gifts to visiting dignitaries. After a period of overfishing in the post-Soviet era, caviar became hard to find and alternatives were sought.
There’s a Hollywood thriller begging to be made about the Russian mob parachuting into Missouri to loot its stocks of paddlefish, often under cover of darkness, and leaving behind mountains of disembowelled corpses. But meanwhile, Paddlefish caviar heist will do just fine.