The stories people hear most about crime are short. They are reductions of events, which could be almost poetic if they weren’t about people’s real lives. “One man was killed and five others were wounded late Friday in San Francisco’s Bayview district,” The San Francisco Chronicle read, or rather, I wrote when I was a breaking news reporter at the paper. “The suspect is unknown,” a police spokesperson told me, in a perfect police sentence, devoid of both accountability and information.
What is notable, in many crime stories in the news, is the absence of a coherent narrative. Often, the only narrative we get comes in the form of a rupture—a burst of gunfire at a specific time, a paroxysm of violence in familiar or unfamiliar locales, a body turning up at a particular address. There’s no before or after, just information about a given moment. The suspect is unknown. The story is not there, and instead there is a shell of facts. It arouses curiosity more than satisfies it. This, I have always felt, is part of what draws people to podcasts like My Favorite Murder and ripped-from-the-headlines shows like Law & Order: SVU. We want to know the story. True crime can impose a narrative on something that before was formless and incomprehensible, giving it a shape that we can begin to understand.
Narrative is the real subject of journalist Rachel Monroe’s book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession. As she reports, “the US murder rate has reached historic lows,” but “stories about murder have become culturally ascendant.” We are in the midst of a true crime boom, and these stories have a particular audience, too: women. “I’ve talked to television executives and writers and podcast hosts, forensic scientists and activists and exonerees, and all agree,” she writes in the intro. “True crime is a genre that overwhelmingly appeals to women.”
She opens the book at CrimeCon, a Nashville-based convention that represents a fever pitch of the current true crime boom. She writes, “On day one of CrimeCon, I found a seat in the ballroom among a couple thousand giddy women and a smattering of men.” Women wear T-shirts that say things like basically a detective and dna or it didn’t happen and i’m just here to establish an alibi. Monroe finds herself wondering: Why are we here? And why, specifically, are women so obsessed with crime? She approaches this question through four archetypes—the detective, the victim, the defender, and the killer—into which women have been cast. In the book’s four sections, she zooms in on characters who fall into those familiar narrative tropes. In doing so, she sketches an unconventional history of some of the 21st century’s most notable and horrific crimes, among them the brutal murder of Sharon Tate, the killing of three boys in Arkansas that led to the wrongful imprisonment of the West Memphis Three, and the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
It struck me at first as strange that Monroe, a journalist whose original reporting often leads to vivid and unexpected stories—like her 2018 Esquire piece about a kidnapping and murder on a Navajo reservation that opened into a revealing story about jurisdictional issues and Amber alerts—would return to crimes that are so widely known. In fact, we know the stories so well that they’re part of our cultural consciousness. But this is precisely the point: to reexamine the stories, often from new vantage points. In Savage Appetites, she writes often of women who are on the edges of a crime.
In her telling of the Tate story, which falls under the victim archetype, Monroe writes not so much about Tate but about Alisa Statman, a woman who becomes obsessed with Tate and the Manson murders after moving into the house where the actress was killed. Monroe interweaves a story about Taylor Behl, a woman who went missing in her own hometown, and her obsession with the Behl case. Monroe hits on one of the strangest parts about adjacency to victimhood, writing, “There was a troubling pleasure in thinking about how I could have been her, or she could have been me.… There was, of course, a key difference between me and Taylor Behl: she was missing, and I was safe.” Monroe shows us victimhood mostly through a kind of refracting lens, writing about what it means not to be the victim of a crime but to identify with crime victims and where that affinity can lead.
This sideways approach makes Savage Appetites a book that is a little slippery to categorize. Though it has something in common with Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls—an essay collection that came out in 2018, featuring meditations on cultural narratives of women as victims—Monroe’s book has more of a reportorial bent. She combines interviews, research, occasional personal anecdotes, and a dissembling critical eye. Though she stays mostly in the background, she is quick to implicate herself in stories she criticizes, describing her own “crime funks” and voyeurism. She is always present also in the book’s unusual structure; the text is carefully organized in such a way that makes her authorial hand clear throughout. This book could feel disjointed to some readers, as its four sections don’t have much character crossover and only loosely observe chronology. But this allows her to avoid the pitfalls of overnarrativizing crime. Savage Appetites, instead, holds together disparate stories and asks readers, implicitly, to see how they are linked.
There are histories embedded in all the archetypes she explores. In the first section, we learn about the early days of forensic science and some of its limitations as a discipline. Along with Tate’s story, we get an account of the burgeoning victims’ rights movement and its relationship to the carceral state in California. In relation to the West Memphis Three, Monroe tells us of the satanic panic that swept the country, bizarrely, in the 1980s, leading to what she calls the “occult-crime lecture circuit,” a cottage industry aimed at teaching cops the signs of satanic worship and crimes. Not only do individual crimes become caught in larger webs of cultural movements and conflicts; they can be catalysts of them.
In the book’s final section, “Killer,” she examines the relationship between crime and the Internet. Specifically, she explores the subculture of serial killer fangirls on Tumblr, crimes designed for virality, Facebook chat friends, and YouTube. She writes about Lindsay Souvannarath, a young Columbine fangirl who plotted her own mass shooting with an online boyfriend. Monroe close-reads their Facebook chats and untangles their overlapping motivations—Internet immortality or, if not that, at least intense fandom. Tracing how “over the past two decades, Columbine itself has become a kind of meme, an idea that self-replicates through the actions of troubled teenagers,” she manages to treat the digital world not as a static thing but one whose context is constantly changing. Though she writes that she had “always defended the [Columbine fan community] to those who saw them as merely shocking and shameful,” in 2016 she became increasingly disturbed by the Tumblr true crime community. “I wasn’t the only one that year who was wondering how you could tell the difference between ironic Nazis and teen-shock Nazis and actual Nazis. And whether there was even a difference at all.” These kinds of distinctions—the ability to read a meme differently over the course of its digital life cycles and to observe how a subculture has subtly changed—make her writing about the Internet multidimensional rather than flat.
Savage Appetites is an elegant dissection. It picks apart the stories we tell ourselves in order to make violence legible or to clean up its aftermath or simply for our entertainment. It’s a reminder that connecting the dots between events can obscure as much as it reveals.