Four true stories of women, crime, and obsession
256pp. Scribner. $26.
DEAD BLONDES AND BAD MOTHERS
Monstrosity, patriarchy, and the fear of female power
272pp. Melville House. 16.99 [pounds sterling].
As the popularity and versatility of true crime have increased, so too has awareness that women are fuelling the genre's renaissance, in terms of being disproportionately both the victims of crimes and the consumers of their retellings. A study of reader reviews and book choices published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2010 found that while women are more drawn to "tales of rape, murder, and serial killers", men are more attracted to "other violent genres", including stories of war and gangs. Rachel Monroe's Savage Appetites: Four true stories of women, crime, and obsession promises to explore this curious state of affairs.
For Monroe, crime stories divide women into four types: detectives, victims, defenders and killers. Some of the women Monroe marshals to illustrate the point are well known, others obscure. The "detective" is Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy forensic artist who made dioramas--she called them "Nutshells"--of famous crime scenes (see p31). In later life, Lee urged Harvard University to hold seminars for detectives from all over the US, to swap new techniques and practices in crime-solving. The chapter on defenders, meanwhile, covers women who correspond and fall in love with men accused of horrendous crimes: Monroe's central example is Lorri Davis, who became involved with Damien Echols, one of three men accused (wrongfully, it would turn out) of murder in 1993, in the "West Memphis Three" case. Lastly, a chapter on killers awkwardly weaves together Ayn Rand, the Columbine high school shootings, and a couple who met online and planned a mass shooting.
Sharon Tate--and, to a degree, the others involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by disciples of Charles Manson in 1969--represents the victim. The Manson murders, Monroe asserts, "almost have too much meaning", being "dense with symbolic portent" of the end of an era. But rather than give Tate back a sense of individuality, Monroe swerves into a discussion of the victims' rights movements that have come about in response to a perceived rise in violent crime. "The collective feeling of being threatened did not have much to do with statistical threat levels", she points out. In the US, "the crime rate has dropped precipitously...