Books

Guilty Pleasures

A boom driven by women’s interest has made true crime respectable. Why doesn’t that feel like more of a victory?

Woman smiling while reading a book with eyes obscured by caution tape.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tara Moore/Getty Images

In the first chapter of her new book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, Rachel Monroe describes attending a conference for true crime aficionados at the Opryland hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. She goes to a panel on profiling, attends a presentation on new DNA extraction methods, and talks to a man peddling books about Ted Bundy and the Zodiac Killer who tells her his small publishing house “used to do zombies and vampires, but that’s going nowhere. It’s all true crime now.” She goes up to her room, orders sundaes from room service, and “gorge[s] myself on crime. For the first time in my life I could have as much as I wanted, without any apologies or explanations. Everyone else at CrimeCon understood.”

As gorging will, this left Monroe queasy. “Being surrounded by other people who shared my most morbid interests should’ve made me feel at home,” she writes. “Instead, it made me uneasy for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.” I share her discomfort, although I’ve only encountered CrimeCon secondhand, through Monroe’s lively and well-turned reporting. As someone who wrote a defense of the true crime genre—and did it before the success of Serial kicked off the current true crime boom—I judge not the predominantly female attendees of the convention for their fascination. I can’t see why a person of any gender shouldn’t find crime interesting. Along with, say, war and polar exploration, crime stands at the extreme of human behavior and experience. It’s inherently riveting, like any other highly dramatic, risky, and tragic subject full of conflict and emotion.

But true crime is a big tent now, no longer just the stuff of cheap mass-market paperbacks from Goodwill and late-night reruns narrated by Robert Stack. Above all, there are the podcasts, seemingly more of them than anyone can count. As a result, those of us with a long-standing taste for the genre sometimes find ourselves baffled by our fellow audience members. At CrimeCon, Monroe spied a woman sporting a T-shirt that read “BASICALLY A DETECTIVE.” Why would you need to tell the world that you desperately longed to be something you are not, especially when becoming a detective is not especially difficult? Are there T-shirts printed with “BASICALLY A SOCIAL WORKER” or “BASICALLY A REALTOR”? Probably I had the whole thing wrong, but the fact that the motto so perplexed me demonstrates how what appears to be a unified phenomenon—the recent upsurge of interest in true crime among women—is in fact a grab bag of mixed and contradictory tastes and motivations.

As Monroe writes in Savage Appetites, the deeper she looked into this phenomenon, the more she realized that “there wasn’t a simple, universal answer to why women were fascinated by true crime.” Women are too varied for that. What intrigues them about the genre “stemmed from different motivations, had different objects and different implications.” Never has this felt more clear to me than when I leafed through Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, a bestselling book published earlier this year by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, based on their very successful podcast, My Favorite Murder. Monroe herself reviewed the book, smartly, for Bookforum, observing that it reproduces the tone of the podcast, in which Kilgariff and Hardstark “banter about abductions and dismemberments as if they’re gabbing over cocktails.” In Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, however, the abductions and dismemberments are few and far between. It is predominantly a self-help book proffering the usual pop-feminist advice about asserting yourself and ending relationships with toxic people—which is all well and good, but not something I have much inclination to read. Fifteen minutes of My Favorite Murder itself, with its arch “let’s have brunch and talk about brutal homicides” tone, made me feel like I was about to break out in hives.

So, Monroe’s argument that different women respond to different aspects of true crime narratives seems well-founded. She divides those aspects into four, pegging them to different participants in a typical crime story: the detective, the victim, the defender, and the killer. Savage Appetites devotes a section to each, focusing on a woman who identified with one of these four figures. Frances Glessner Lee, an early-20th-century heiress sometimes called the mother of forensics, couldn’t be a detective herself, so she supported the application of science to crime by funding the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. Her most striking work was a series of 20 dioramas (only 19 survive), depicting actual crime scenes in fantastically scrupulous detail. These “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” as she called them, provided police detectives with puzzles to solve, honing their powers of observation and training them in a newly established set of protocols for examining scenes.

The second section focuses on a young woman who rented the guesthouse on the property where Sharon Tate and four visitors were killed by members of the Manson family. This woman later insinuated herself into the Tate family’s lives, writing a book about them. Then, Monroe profiles Lorri Davis, a landscape architect who saw a documentary about the West Memphis Three—young men wrongfully convicted as teenagers in 1994 of murdering three children in a satanic ritual—and plunged into the campaign to exonerate them. She later married one of the men, Damien Echols. The final woman Monroe writes about, Lindsay Souvannarath, a biracial Canadian in her 20s, received a life sentence for plotting a mass shooting with a young man she’d only ever interacted with online; it was the culmination of a virtual existence devoted to the Columbine shooters, Nazism, and other unsavory subjects. Each of these accounts is laced with bits of autobiographical material in which Monroe recounts her own, much-less-extreme forays into playing detective or obsessing over a particular victim. She seems to be saying, there but for the grace of God—and bit more going on in our lives—goes you or me.

Monroe points out that “detective stories make good reading material for misfits. They teach you that being overlooked can be an advantage, that when your perspective is slightly askew from the mainstream, you notice things that other people don’t.” Most murder victims are young men of color, but women who fixate on the victims of crimes tend to pick women like themselves: typically white and middle-class, the sort of tragic lambs beloved by the tabloids and “journalists” like Nancy Grace. (Anyone seeking a departure from this formula should pick up a copy of Jill Leovy’s excellent Ghettoside.) “Because she’s dead,” Monroe writes, “the victim can become whatever people need her to be. Because she’s dead, we can say anything we want about her, and she can’t talk back. For some people, she is more valuable this way: holy, symbolic, silent.”

Plenty of theories about women and true crime get floated in Savage Appetites: Women are fascinated by the genre because they want to avoid becoming victims, or because narratives of violation and justice restore their faith in an orderly world, or because they are entranced by the dark allure of masculine evil. But these are perennial concerns, and the current true crime craze only dates back to 2014 and the debut of Serial. Had you asked me 10 years ago to describe the typical person likely to hang out in online chat rooms or conventions dedicated to serial killers, I’d have sketched the kind of flamboyantly creepy guy who listened to punk rock or death metal and magneted a photo of John Wayne Gacy on his fridge—what kids today witheringly dismiss as an edgelord. In Gillian Flynn’s 2009 novel, Dark Places, the female narrator—the sole survivor of a notorious family massacre—makes cash on the side by appearing at true crime conventions and selling souvenirs taken from the murder house. Her customers are all male.

Sometimes the medium really is the message. E-book technology made Fifty Shades of Grey a quick, embarrassment-free impulse purchase, and in the process alerted many female readers to their own previously unsuspected yen for kinky erotica. Similarly, Serial leant a tony, NPR aura to a genre stigmatized by the sensationalism of tabloid harpies like Nancy Grace and their lurid treatment of famous victims like JonBenét Ramsey and Laci Peterson. Streaming services like Netflix brought intelligent, well-produced documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Staircase into millions of homes. These were gateway drugs to the true crime genre for many fans who might otherwise never have discovered their taste for it. And it’s no coincidence that all three called a conviction into question. A cable TV show that lingers over details of a serial killer’s ghastly atrocities is trash, but a multipart podcast or film suggesting that the wrong man has been sent up the river? That’s social commentary.

Unlike Monroe, I’ve never been sucked into a forum or subreddit by the delusion that I could be the one to solve a notorious crime using only my laptop. I know I’d make a crap detective; I’m just not methodical or meticulous enough. Instead of identifying with the victims or even the detectives, I’m drawn to cases that are unsolved, that present some irreducible question that may never be answered. Who the victim is matters less than the strangeness or atypicality of the crime, the thing that doesn’t fit the usual formula (the husband did it, a drug deal gone wrong). I’m in it for the mystery, and the way it imbues ordinary objects and places with strange and potent meanings. I’m fascinated by the way that solving a crime means formulating a story out of all those discrete, charged fragments, and particularly by the way a story comes together, in moments and decisions that might go this way or that, by the quantum state of the facts as a theory is formulated, then falls apart, then coalesces again. And for all those reasons, I’m also drawn to cases in which the official story, the jury’s verdict, is challenged.

But that’s just me, and my interests are no more laudable than those of My Favorite Murder’s “murderinos.” Curiosity about crime requires no explanation. What does, though, is the atmosphere of shame surrounding events like CrimeCon, and the superficially defiant sauciness of offerings like My Favorite Murder, the campy flippancy that celebrates the host’s preoccupation with infamous homicides while also deriding it. I know this is so trashy, this approach squeals, and don’t you just love it? The gossip-y shoddiness of some of the most popular true crime podcasts—Kilgariff and Hardstark are notorious for reading directly from Wikipedia pages and getting significant facts wrong, while Crime Junkie, an equally successful podcast founded by Ashley Flowers, has been embroiled in multiple plagiarism scandals—betrays a depressing lack of respect: for the victims, for the survivors, for the listeners, for the hosts themselves.

The title of Monroe’s book, her descriptions of herself as “gorging” simultaneously on ice cream and crime stories, the way the attendees she met at CrimeCon spoke of being obsessed and addicted—all of this replicates the self-hating language women have long used to describe and stigmatize a dysfunctional relationship to food and eating. This discomfort seems to have less to do with crime and crime stories than it does with women’s complex, ambivalent feelings about their own desires, especially when those desires are unruly, untamed, and insufficiently demure or positive. A fascination with crime doesn’t really call for tortured and protracted analysis—or at least not any more so than does an obsession with baseball. Why some of us feel so bad about it is definitely a mystery worth solving.

Savage Appetites cover
Simon & Schuster