Review of Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe
So… women and true crime. Something interesting is going on there.
That’s the premise of Savage Appetites, and unfortunately, it ends up being the book’s conclusion too.
Crime reporter Rachel Monroe starts by introducing the rapid rise in true crime as an entertainment obsession over the past few decades–an obsession fueled almost entirely by women, especially white middle-class women. The crime-junkie culture is bewildering to outsiders, often drawing scorn or dismissal. Still, it grows, which seems to point to something important we’re missing about our culture, especially when it comes to gender. It seems like understanding the true-crime phenomenon should illuminate “empathy, justice, and the persistent appeal of violence,” as the cover copy puts it.
But the book isn’t about that. The introduction and the conclusion describe the author’s experiences in the true-crime fan community, which gives me the feeling as a reader that I’ve learned something about that community through the course of the book. Honestly, I didn’t learn much. The book is actually about four particular women and their obsessions with a crime or crime in general. Monroe presents these four discrete stories like they should be case studies of some larger truth, but there’s no point or argument here. The takeaway remains “women and true crime… something’s going on there.”
Taken separately, those four sections are quite good. Monroe is highly skilled at weaving her personal research experience into the narrative of past events. She continually circles back to her own experiences, which gives the reader important context for the way these women are being presented. Monroe embraces the subjectivity that she never would have been able to avoid.
The final case study was particularly powerful. Monroe invites the reader into her struggle to find the right language to describe the “Columbiner” online community of the early 2000s. She is highly conscious of all the cultural forces asking her to revile or dismiss the young women that made up school shooter “fandoms.” These women (more often, girls, actually) are people, complex as any other, and Monroe wants to study them with generosity. What is driving this interest? To what extent is it in earnest? How does it compare to the fandoms around other, more benign celebrities? What can it tell us about what these girls want and need? At the same time, Monroe is frank about the reality that these are communities glorifying and fetishizing murder. She can’t let herself write it off as adolescent experimentation. Though she never reaches a final conclusion about those online communities, Monroe remains committed to studying them with seriousness and complexity. That’s a powerful thing that we don’t see enough when it comes to the culture of girls.
Unfortunately, these four stories don’t teach us much about the modern true-crime obsession as a whole. Monroe selected these women specifically because they were outliers. They devoted their lives to crime (or a particular crime) in some fashion. They were “obsessed” in a literal, clinical sense, not the way I call myself “obsessed” with matching face masks to my outfits. The book helped me understand those four women better, but I don’t feel that I’m any closer to understanding the millions of women who binge crime podcasts or docuseries.
In fact, they seem all the more indecipherable to me, since even an experienced crime reporter with hundreds of pages at her disposal can’t explain them to me.