When I was 13 or 14, I developed a habit that I was sure I should keep secret. In the rare hours when no one was home, I would turn the TV to channel 16 and sit on the couch, transferring crackers from a box into my mouth and staring, transfixed, at Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The drama’s storylines were cheesy and formulaic: a sex crime has been discovered – a rape, an abduction, a sexually motivated murder. Surly cops zip around New York, interviewing suspects and gathering clues. They chase the wrong guy, toss off a few puns, and – just when the hour is almost up – catch the real culprit. If I heard footsteps down the hall, I would grab the remote and pretend I’d been watching the news.
I had forgotten about this until I read Rachel Monroe’s new book, Savage Appetites. Monroe, a writer and journalist for publications including the New Yorker and the Atlantic, grapples with the inherent creepiness of treating crime as entertainment – a moral ambiguity that’s been obscured, lately, by the volume and quality of literary memoirs, podcasts and documentaries devoted to cold cases, famous cults and forgotten murders. Over the past few years, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has inspired a novel by the acclaimed writer Carmen Maria Machado and a New Yorker essay by the Pulitzer Prize winner Emily Nussbaum; the feminist critic Roxane Gay told an interviewer that she watches SVU while writing. In certain circles, staying up to date on cult leaders and serial killers isn’t a guilty pleasure but a hobby as valid as sports or Game of Thrones. True crime has transitioned from pulp to prestige.
Monroe chronicles her lifelong obsession with crime – from her childhood habit of pilfering her parents’ tabloid magazines to read about missing kids, to her furtive online searches for the Columbine killers’ journals, her Special Victims Unit binges in grad school and her focus on true crime as a journalist – without letting herself off the hook. Her book serves, in part, as a reminder that – as trendy as crime narratives have become, as much as the storytelling has evolved – there is still something sordid about consuming human tragedies, about downloading podcasts with names like My Favorite Murder or True Crime Girl Time and declaring ourselves on social media #truecrimeaddicts or #murderinos.
Monroe focuses on a curious paradox of the true-crime boom. The perpetrators of violence are mostly male. So are the consumers of violent video games and gory horror movies. But the primary audience for true-crime stories – the podcast listeners; the amateur detectives on “websleuthing” forums; the attendees of a cringeworthy fan convention called CrimeCon, where true-crime buffs such as Monroe can try on handcuffs, purchase Charles Manson-themed birthday cards and mingle at a “Wine & Crime happy hour” – are women. Women write 70 per cent of the Amazon reviews for true-crime books (versus 18 per cent for books about war).
So why do women clamour to hear about other women being abducted and attacked? If you ask the guests at CrimeCon what they’re doing there, they give answers like: “Murder is the new black!” A more flattering theory, championed by evolutionary psychologists, is that women read crime stories to learn how to protect themselves – that tales of true crime function as a guide to self-defence. To Monroe, this is unconvincing, even condescending. “By presuming that women’s dark thoughts were merely pragmatic, those thoughts were drained of their menace,” she writes. “True crime wasn’t something we women at CrimeCon were consuming begrudgingly, for our own good. We found pleasure in these bleak accounts of kidnappings and assaults and torture chambers, and you could tell by how often we fell back on the language of appetite, of bingeing, of obsession.”
Part of the appeal of true-crime stories, Monroe argues, is that – like fairy tales or fables – they split the world into neat dichotomies: good and evil, victim and villain. “These archetypes are compelling in part because they are so reductive… Detective stories satisfy our desire for tidy solutions.”
Monroe profiles four women whose fixation on crime upended their lives, and who each identified with one of four archetypal characters in a true-crime tale: the clever detective, the innocent victim, the crusading defender and the powerful killer. These roles may hold a special appeal for women who feel trapped by the quiet expectations of femininity; crime can be a ticket to grandeur and drama. “The four women in this book were encouraged to lead small lives or to keep parts of themselves hidden; becoming entwined with a famous crime enlarged their worlds and allowed them to express things they couldn’t otherwise voice,” Monroe writes. Her reporting is based on interviews with the victim and the defender; the chat logs of the killer, who is in prison; and archival interviews with the detective, who died in 1962.
In the 1940s, heiress Frances Glessner Lee’s gender made her dreams of solving crimes impossible. Locked out of the police force, she retreated to New Hampshire and spent several years building intricate, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes named the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Each was a puzzle, intended as a teaching tool: aspiring detectives would have to search for clues, such as the positioning of a doll’s limbs, the pattern of bloodstains or the plausibility of a suicide note.
“If a police officer interpreted her models only through the lens of his prejudices – say, presuming that the prostitute had died of a drug overdose, and that the lonely old woman killed herself – he overlooked the clues that would allow him to figure out what had truly happened,” Monroe writes. Through the success of her dioramas Lee was able to contribute to the detective world she longed to join – and to “briefly access the respect, authority and control that was otherwise denied her”.
Fifty years later, Alisa Statman was struggling to find her way in Hollywood and her own identity as a young woman – until she discovered her link to a famous victim. Statman says that she didn’t know, when she answered a “FOR RENT” ad in Beverly Hills, that it was the house where actress Sharon Tate and her friends had been murdered by members of Charles Manson’s hippie cult in 1969. Statman’s new address gave her a claim to the historic tragedy; when she came across a trove of old photo albums, she had a reason to get in touch with Sharon’s sister, Patti – who she gradually turned into a friend, confidante and even roommate. After Patti died, Statman wrote a book about Sharon’s murder and became something of a professional spokesperson for the nonplussed Tate family, appearing on TV to comment on Manson news and anniversaries.
For Lorri Davis, dropping her career in landscape architecture and leaving her home in New York to defend a man she barely knew gave her life new passion and depth. Watching a documentary about a crime in small-town Arkansas, she learned that a young man named Damien Echols was serving a life sentence for the murder of three boy scouts in West Memphis. Echols was a black-haired, strong-jawed outsider, a practitioner of “magick” who happily divulged his interest in becoming known as the “West Memphis boogeyman”. But he also maintained his innocence, and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Something in the tale touched Lorri. She felt an urgent need to communicate with Damien, to tell him how much she believed in him. The letter she mailed to his prison address set off a chain of events that included her relocation to Arkansas, her prison yard wedding, her multi-year legal campaign and – finally – Damien’s exoneration. As the “defender”, Monroe writes, Davis “became part of a grand redemptive story”.
In 2014, Lindsay Souvannarath was 22 and spending most of her time alone in her childhood bedroom, drinking fruit-flavoured vodka and reading about school shooters online. Through Tumblr she met a moody-looking young man named James, who was perhaps even more depressed than she was. Within weeks, they were chatting constantly, swapping sexts and memes about mass murder. When Lindsay shared her thoughts about “terrorising the normal/inferior people”, James said he hoped “to do that on a major scale someday”. Lindsay typed back: “Same.” It was not clear whether she was homicidal or just agreeable, but her lawyers made the case for the latter after Lindsay was apprehended at the airport in Canada: without ever meeting, the couple had hatched a plan to shoot up a mall in Nova Scotia and then kill themselves.
If the links between these stories sound a little tenuous, that’s because they are. But that’s not a complaint. Part of what I liked about this book is that Monroe resists the need to sweep all of her material into a single, tidy narrative. Her prose – consistently lyrical and probing – does a lot of the work towards making it feel cohesive. All four stories are fascinating, and the loose structure allows for digressions on the history of forensic science, the concept of victimhood, the life of Ayn Rand and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
Monroe has no grand unified theory of true crime. She’s a little queasy at the beginning and, more than 200 pages later, she remains a little queasy. She still can’t really explain her obsession, or even vindicate it. In allowing for messiness – narrative as well as moral – her book is a corrective to the genre it interrogates.
Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession
Scribner, 272pp, £20.79