Four Women and their Crime “Obsessions”

Book review: Savage Appetites, by Rachel Monroe (Amazon / Book Depository)

For the past few years, as the US murder rate has approached historic lows, stories about murder have become culturally ascendant…whether our tastes tended toward high-end HBO documentaries interrogating the justice system or something more like Investigation Discovery’s Swamp Murders. (Or, as was often the case, both. True crime tends to scramble traditional high/low categorizations.)

Journalist Rachel Monroe is obsessed with true crime, an obsession that, I would argue, isn’t experiencing so much a resurgence as it’s just become more acceptable to admit. For a decade she’s “been collecting stories of women who were drawn in by crimes that weren’t theirs to claim — that is, crimes that didn’t impact them directly, but to which they nevertheless felt a deep connection.”

In Savage Appetites, she examines the lives of four women with intense involvements in crimes that weren’t theirs, incorporating commentary on women’s roles in the current moment’s saturated true crime landscape. Each woman fits what she calls “archetypal crime figures” — “the objective, all-knowing detective; the wounded, wronged victim; the crusading lawyer, battling for justice; and even the dark, raging glamour of the killer.” She argues that focusing on these examples of archetypes reveals greater truths about the culture and state of the world around them, including why the media and public fixates on certain crimes or murderers.

The murder stories we tell, and the ways that we tell them, have a political and social impact and are worth taking seriously. Lessons are embedded within their gory details. When read closely, they can reveal the anxieties of the moment, tell us who’s allowed to be a victim, and teach us what our monsters are supposed to look like.

The detective is Frances Lee, a rich, upper-class older woman in the 1940s who spent her time and money making dollhouses with miniature crime scenes recreated down to the smallest detail. The purpose of the “Nutshells” was to help law enforcement learn to analyze crime scenes for easily overlooked but telling details.

She’d been forced into a traditional role that didn’t suit her, and cultivated a then-unconventional interest in forensics. Interestingly, “a century after Lee was denied a college education by her father, the field she found so fascinating – now definitively referred to as forensics – became one of the few science careers where the vast majority of students were women.”

The victim concerns the story of Alisa Statman, a woman who got uncomfortably and suspiciously close to Sharon Tate’s family (she of the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson cult). Monroe makes a compelling point about the nature of victimhood, covering what the long-suffering and harassed Tates went through, concluding “I thought about just how many victims there are in this story, and how if you started to count them, you might never stop.”

The “defender” is Lorri Davis, a landscape architect who married Damien Echols, one of the wrongfully accused West Memphis Three. Monroe professes annoyance at the trope of women romantically obsessed with murderers and inmates, arguing Davis doesn’t fit this mold through her position as a staunch advocate for justice in Echols’ case.

The “killer” is Lindsay Souvannarath, a Columbine-obsessed teenager who planned a (thwarted) mass shooting with a similarly-inclined boy she met online. Souvannarath never actually killed anyone and it’s unclear whether she would’ve gone through with it. This was an interesting choice since there’s no dearth of female killers Monroe could’ve analyzed, but instead she explores the perceived “glamour” that a potential killer saw in the act and its notoriety.

Monroe also explores the online world of “Columbiners,” an unsettling community that revels in the school shooting and obsesses (romantically) over the two perpetrators. I was stunned this was a thing. “For some girls with their own wells of pain, this famous crime was a useful metaphor — operatic in its intensity, flattened by media overrepresentation into something not precisely real. It provided a language, and a set of shared reference points, to talk about end-of-the-world feelings: apocalyptic despair, unacceptable rage.”

This is where Monroe is strongest: placing these smaller-scale profiles into context and explaining their significance, and what they indicate about the psychology of the women involved. She also interrogates her own fascinations and participation. I found her role in the narrative to be tolerable although not particularly meaningful. Monroe is a greatly compelling writer and can usually make her experiences and observations relatable or at least relevant.

Weaker is any overarching concept, like those archetypes. The entire book is written in a way that hints at a big thesis, something tying together women, violence, and obsession, but it never quite materializes, or at least not cohesively.

Still, shortly after reading this, another young woman obsessed with Columbine made the news on the tragedy’s 2019 anniversary — traveling to Colorado, buying a gun and making threats. I felt informed about the nature of the online community thanks to this book, and it was interesting to see even news anchors struggle to put her actions into context, some of them also having no idea what “Columbiners” are.

Although some archetypal elements of women interested in true crime and reasons why are thoughtful and well argued, these are extreme examples. Even if a reader does feel the need to interrogate their interest in true crime, I can’t imagine that most would see themselves, in whole or in part, here.

She acknowledges that these women are outliers, and argues that the characters populating detective stories make compelling archetypes “in part because they are so reductive” in terms of “narratives of virtue and vice populated by good guys and bad guys.” So I guess it’s worth examining extremes? There is an interesting general link between women and crime stories, which Monroe dips into by describing what Crime Con and its predominantly female attendees are like, but it’s not in-depth enough to contribute much.

It’s compelling reading though. I felt unsatisfied when it didn’t go deeply enough and when links to make bigger points seemed missing. It also doesn’t say explicitly, but rather generally circles, the idea that a recent upsurge of interest in true crime is something new, which always bothers me.

The ideas and theses feel somewhat flimsy, but the storytelling is top-notch, and even on well trodden ground like the Tate-LaBianca or West Memphis Three cases she still finds new angles to approach. Thoughtful meta-true crime, analytical but not academic, with wide appeal for those familiar with the genre. 3.5/5

Savage Appetites:
Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

by Rachel Monroe
published August 20, 2019 by Scribner

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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25 thoughts on “Four Women and their Crime “Obsessions”

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    1. I wasn’t familiar with the term Columbiners. I knew there were people out there who idolized those two killers but didn’t know there were groups organized to celebrate their heinous legacy. Though, why wouldn’t there be? Makes you shake your head.

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      1. It’s even more than celebrating, I’m sorry to say. It’s this like…romantic obsession combined with idolization. Supposedly they even make memes out of pictures of them dead. It’s so messed up and misguided, but I think the author made sense of it very well, the type of young girl it appeals to and what’s going on with them, and the attention around Columbine itself, that makes it appeal to them. Many of them weren’t even born when it happened. It is just so bizarre. But you’re right, of course this exists, why am I even surprised.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m surprised we’ve never heard of them. Columbine is the one school shooting that I still think about because it happened when I was in high school, and such a thing seemed terribly new. I was steeped in the same culture as the shooters, and in fact, one of them was from Michigan and had gone to elementary school with my spouse. So close to home, right?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OMG, yes! I forgot about those! We always had to walk to the local movie theater and sit there until it was all clear. Rumors would fly all over the place about what had happened and who saw what. Never before in my life have I experienced a rumor mill like those in public schools.

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  1. First, I can’t keep up! Love that every time I look you have posted a new review. Secondly, was just reading about this book on lithub. Its cover is pleasingly gruesome. I would like to read it as the approach taken seems original and you say it is a compelling read. Compelling always does it for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you! I try to keep myself on something of a publishing schedule or else I think I would never finish anything, to be honest 🤣 The cover is from one of the Nutshells, the dollhouse-like crime scenes that Frances Lee created. They’re so eerie, you can look up pictures online. They look kind of normal, some of them, at first, and then you start noticing what’s off about them. It was compelling and I was never bored reading it, I guess it just felt lacking in substance or a clear message once it was finished.

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  2. I’m in your camp of thinking that our interest in true crime is not a new phenomena. Social media has probably played a role in amplifying what’s always been there😏

    Thanks for an excellent review! This sounds interesting for the angles explored alone, even if the author falls short of delving deeper than she could (or should) have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure why there’s this idea that it’s new phenomenon either. Maybe the recent proliferation of true crime podcasts, at least in part, that’s really the only new aspect I see. But how long have Dateline and 48 Hours been on, you know? How lastingly popular was Unsolved Mysteries? And those are only modern examples, if you read anything about major historical cases — Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, any case dubbed “crime/murder of the century”– people were obsessive even back then, almost frenzied compared to now.

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  3. This was an excellent review. However, I don’t know why it seems the only shows on TV anymore are about murders. It is so nice to see that the murders in the US have decreased. I have hit a point in my life where I have seen so many murders on TV and read about real life murders in books and newspapers that I refuse to watch them or read about them anymore. There are so many good things to read about and shows to watch. I’m sure this is an excellent book, I have nothing against it or the author, just not for me.

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  4. This sounds like an interesting premise – sorry to see it didn’t quite live up to its potential. I often find myself turned off by this kind of structure (i.e. a few detailed profiles, sharing a central theme), just because so many authors are unable to make the parts feel cohesive. I’d definitely agree that the proliferation of true crime podcasts (a new format) has propped up the idea that the genre itself is a new phenomenon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean — I think even if the author perceives there to be a connection it doesn’t always come through. Especially the “detective” felt out of place with the others here, which I didn’t even get to in the review.

      I do think it’s the podcasts that have really propelled this. We’ve had blockbuster books, shows, and documentaries for ages, and that’s only recent times. As I mentioned in other comments the frenzy over historical crimes is almost incomparable to today. Yet I still keep seeing think pieces about the new true crime trend…😒

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There is! Actually there’s a new one I just saw coming out in February, called 18 Tiny Deaths. It sounds really interesting: http://brucegoldfarb.com
      And there’s an older one, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death: https://www.monacellipress.com/book/?isbn=9781580931458
      but it’s not really about her, I think it’s more of a photo essay showing the Nutshells themselves. The upcoming book looks like a good option if you’re interested in them!

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  5. I’ve always loved true crime anything which I blame on Forensic Files in the 90s. It’s nice to know that there are other people with a healthy relationship with true crime. Putting this on my to read list!

    Liked by 1 person

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