Murder on Middle Beach is much more than just a true crime documentary

HBO's new true crime doc follows a young man in pursuit of answers around his mother's unsolved murder.

by Douglas Greenwood
24 November 2020, 12:13pm

Image via HBO

When Madison Hamburg was 18 years old, he was, like many of us, distant from his parents; in the early stages of a teenage rebellion that would see him cutting family ties and experimenting with drugs. Then he received news he never expected: his mother, Barbara Beach Hamburg, has been murdered in the garden of the home he grew up in and the police don’t know who did it.

The petty arguments and desire to be bigger than your parents will be what haunts you when one of them dies. The unresolved hurts almost as much as the pain of their absence. 10 years after Madison’s mother was killed, there have been no solid leads for her murderer. A documentary by Madison -- Murder on Middle Beach -- has arrived on HBO, in which Madison tries to piece many things together: who could be responsible for her death? Was it someone within his family circle? Who was the woman he now realises he knew little about?

Murder on Middle Beach is currently airing every Sunday night in the US (a UK release is yet to be decided). The four-part series sees Madison confront every line of questioning and every possible figure involved in his mother’s murder. But we watch not just to uncover who could be responsible for this, but to learn more about a woman whose life has since become synonymous with her death. 

This is the beautiful, sympathetic, humanising nature of Madison’s directorial debut -- a series that delivers dread, shocks and hideous truths, but never strays from the idea that, at the centre of it all, lies a dead woman and her still-grieving family. As it unfolds, we meet them all: Barbara’s sisters, daughters, great aunts and friends. Each has a case for why they could and couldn’t be responsible for the crime. They also all have their own suspicions as to who might have the answers; sending each of them into a complex, jaw-dropping game of familial finger-pointing.

There’s a chilling moment in which we are given an insight into the day before Barbara’s murder, as she sat in her living room with her great aunt, Jill Platt. As they speak, Jill recalls watching a man in a ski mask walk across Barbara’s lawn, pick up on the fact he’s been noticed, and run off. Less than 24 hours later, Barbara was dead. 

It’s one clue in a tapestry of many that point in different directions. A history of alcoholism within the family shows how people can be driven into states of hatred and mania by the disease. Throughout there’s a conscious, absence of Barbara’s ex-husband -- who was due to file for divorce on the day of her murder and has always remained tight-lipped on what happened once she had died. 

It’s a documentary made with courage more than anything, teetering a tightrope between providing the viewers with answers and potentially destroying the very fabric of a family that’s already fractured by loss. That the finale stretches into one 90 minute film within the series is fully justified. There is so much left to unpack, but it never feels forensic. And that’s part of what makes it so unique: it’s a crime documentary defined as much by its maker’s desire to find out who his mother truly was as much as it is by the chase to uncover her killer. 

Because what Murder on Middle Beach is really about is the undying demand we have to know everything about those who meant so much to us and are no longer here. It’s a eulogy and a beady-eyed investigation, complexly tied together, demanding you watch it from start to finish. Chances are, you’ll be utterly compelled to do so.

‘Murder on Middle Beach’ is streaming on HBO Max now.