A provocative and original investigation of our cultural fascination with crime, linking four archetypes—Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer—to four true stories about women driven by obsession.
In this illuminating exploration of women, violence, and obsession, Rachel Monroe interrogates the appeal of true crime through four narratives of fixation. In the 1940s, a frustrated heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths. Known as the “Mother of Forensic Science,” she revolutionized the field of what was then called legal medicine. In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse and, over the next two decades, entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer, the supposed ringleader of the West Memphis Three, through an intense series of letters. After they married, she devoted her life to getting him freed from death row. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own.
Each woman, Monroe argues, represents and identifies with a particular archetype that provides an entryway into true crime. Through these four cases, she traces the history of American crime through the growth of forensic science, the evolving role of victims, the Satanic Panic, the rise of online detectives, and the long shadow of the Columbine shooting. In a combination of personal narrative, reportage, and a sociological examination of violence and media in the twentieth and twenty-first century, Savage Appetites scrupulously explores empathy, justice, and the persistent appeal of violence.
About the Author
Rachel Monroe is a writer and volunteer firefighter living in Marfa, Texas. Her work has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2018, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere.
“Enthralling ... Monroe zeroes in on the aftermath of murder, on the morbid curiosity that draws eager civilians toward the crime scene and catapults them into starring roles. She avoids the formulaic professional tropes of true crime…Monroe has a knack for nosing a new story out of an old one, like a detective casting fresh eyes on a cold case.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"For true crime fanatics and Law & Order superfans, Monroe has written a brilliant book where cultural criticism meets sociological survey in a methodical examination of just what it is about murder that obsesses us. Through four case studies, Monroe explores why women in particular are drawn to the grotesque celebrity of true crime, and what those violent delights say about our culture."
—Esquire, the Best Books of 2019 (So Far)
"Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe’s probing, recursive study, per the subtitle, of ‘women, crime, and obsession,’ attempts to explain to themselves and the rest of us those women running in place while fixed on a master broadcast of ritual female destruction…The chapters are discrete, linked chiefly by their interest in the context Monroe expands by a sort of narrative stealth, broadening with each stroke our sense of the world within which women in particular might seek not just entertainment or relief but purpose in a carefully wrought proximity to crime…Monroe maintains her implication—and her reader’s—in what she describes, layering her chapters with personal anecdotes and alluding to a shared familiarity with the true-crime story’s potent admixture of myth and intimacy, realness and simulacrum, chaos and clarity, violence and comfort."
“Monroe explores how a vicarious interest in violent crime transformed the lives of four women—and how our collective interest in such crimes has shaped American culture…The mysteries Monroe sets out to solve are as riveting as detective novels, but the angle is different. These are not whodunnits but whydunnits: Monroe points her magnifying glass at motive.”
—The Boston Globe
“Necessary and brilliant…Monroe treats each individual narrative with nuance, empathy and transparency, allowing both the protagonists and their supporting cast to remain complex. She delves into the social and political ramifications of each narrative, making accessible and visible what so often gets overlooked in these stories because it's too complicated to put into a headline or summary. Monroe's book is a pleasure to read because it is smart, well-researched and well-written…But more than that, Savage Appetites is important because it refuses to sit inside binaries of good vs. evil, victim vs. perpetrator, innocent victim vs. mastermind criminal. It doesn't give us easy answers for why women are the main consumers of true crime narratives, because there aren't any because women as a category are not monolith and because it's complicated and nuanced and different for everyone. The book is important also because I suspect there are more than a few of us who, like Monroe herself, feel conflicted about their desire to consume stories of murder and mayhem and wonder what it reflects about the world around us and ourselves.”
“By looking at women looking at violence, Monroe doesn’t quite answer the question of why women love true crime — as she points out, women are a diverse group with a wide variety of motivations. Instead, she ends up with something subtler and more useful, a call to action for crime-heads to consume the stories they want, but to do so critically. She delivers a defense of the genre that is also an indictment of its worst impulses…Most valuable is the moral nuance that Monroe brings to a genre that inspires fierce fandoms and disgusted dismissals but not enough scrutiny in between.”
—The Washington Post
“In Savage Appetites, the pleasure comes from the way Monroe works backwards, untangling the neat, tidy surface stories of her four subjects and embracing the nuance, messiness, and all-important context that an exploration into female desire requires …This critical context is the result of in-depth research and interviews with many of the book’s key figures, which Monroe weaves together with personal stories that clarify her own relationship with violence and crime…With skill and subtlety, she shows that "random violence casts a long shadow" and that our obsession with it has a place in creating that darkness. Monroe concedes that not all mysteries get solved, including the question of why we’re all so fascinated by true crime. Maybe there isn’t an answer. But as she shows in these four narratives, it is worth the investigation nonetheless …The reader is left with the clues she’s gathered and the insights she’s made, to pick up and turn over, to solve or to obsess over—sort of like a crime scene.”
"Lively and well-turned."
“Narrative is the real subject of journalist Rachel Monroe’s book…In 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, [holding] together disparate stories and [asking] readers, implicitly, to see how they are linked...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.”
“Monroe resists the need to sweep all of her material into a single, tidy narrative. Her prose–consistently lyrical and probing–does a lot of the work towards making it feel cohesive…In allowing for messiness–narrative as well as moral–her book is a corrective to the genre it interrogates.”
—The New Statesman
“One of the most fascinating and intellectual approaches to true crime I’ve ever read.”
“Monroe’s keen observations and probing journalism keep us from the satisfying feeling of closure that a good mystery novel or a true-crime documentary can provide. Rather, we’re left with the feeling that virtually everything about how we contend with violent crime as a society is woefully misguided. No investigation is truly over, grief ripples forever and justice falters at every turn, scarring the innocent and doing little to rehabilitate the guilty. Monroe does what true obsessives do: show us what is unresolved, what is unending, what might never be possible — and how important it is to try to fix it anyway.”
"Savage Appetites is required reading for those who understand that women aren’t just reading true crime to protect ourselves—we’re investigating cold cases, getting close to the families of victims, leveraging power to get men to embrace the validity of our “hobbies,” and much more."
"An illuminating exploration rooted in a convincing thesis, and even the most dedicated true crime reader will find something new within it to enjoy."
—Buzzfeed, 29 Amazing Books Coming Out This Summer
"Monroe has written a brilliant book where cultural criticism meets sociological survey in a methodical examination of just what it is about murder that obsesses us."
—Esquire, Best Books of Summer 2019
"Rachel Monroe’s searching essay collection asks all the right questions, and even better, doesn’t attempt to answer them (or at least, not completely). Why do women love true crime, the introduction asks, and posits several likely theories; each following essay takes us into the idiosyncratic existence of a woman and her obsessions, from Francis Glessner’s tiny crime scenes and love of forensic science, to Lorri Davis’ decades-long quest to free a wrongfully convicted man who later became her husband. Unsettling, brilliant, and impossible to put down!"
—Lit Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2019
"I usually stick to fiction, but one standout nonfiction read was journalist Rachel Monroe’s forthcoming Savage Appetites, which looks at the connection between women and the mania for true crime. My favorite section was about Frances Lee, an upper-class Boston spinster whose foremost obsession was creating dollhouse-proportioned murder scenes that she called her 'nutshells.'"
—Lauren Mechling, Los Angeles Times
“Savage Appetites is a chilling, compelling examination of the darkness in us all. This is obviously a book for true-crime fans, as well as anyone interested in human nature. A powerful, well-researched inquiry into why we find violent crime so fascinating, viewed though the stories of detective, victim, defender and killer.”
"This is a book sure to please fans of mystery and true crime. An insightful invitation to consider the contexts and causes of a gritty cultural obsession.”
“Monroe's writing is superb and each woman's story is fascinating…true crime aficionados will appreciate this spin on the genre.”
"A provocative work best suited to readers with a strong interest in true crime and its historical roots…an original and bold contribution to the genre.”
"In Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe brings a rigorous and illuminating gaze to some of our most disturbing fascinations. Ultimately, she summons generosity and nuance for the discussion of hungers we might be tempted to dismiss entirely, asking revealing questions that are ultimately questions about the nature of desire itself: for intimacy, for freedom, for a sense of meaning. I read this book in a single day, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for years to come—especially its keen appreciation for the mystery of what drives us through this world."
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams and The Recovering
"Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe's study on ‘women, crime and obsession,’ can properly be described as brilliant. It informs, entertains, and leaves readers with new cultural perspectives that are long overdue. I'm now a Rachel Monroe fan and after you read this book, you will be too."
—Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson and The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
“This is like high junk reading, both getting the information, snickering at the misinformation, stalking the stalkers and really brooding on the possibility that the dead female body at the top of the film is feeding a female appetite for death and malfeasance and not yawn more jerk off fodder for men. Our corpses, ourselves!”
—Eileen Myles, author of Evolution
"Rachel Monroe has long been one of my favorite writers at the intersection of crime and culture, and her first book, Savage Appetites, is the grand culmination of her reporting. It's a standout, formally inventive, and refreshing examination of the way we consume true crime, and the way it consumes us."
—Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
“I don’t know how Rachel Monroe wrote a book so vivid and perceptive, but I couldn’t put it down. Savage Appetites is an original: at once a thoughtful, beautifully written treatise on why women are drawn to crime stories and a gripping read to satisfy any murder obsessive. I’m not exaggerating when I say Monroe has written a new true crime classic, one that both adds to and challenges the genre.”
—Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls
"Smart and seductive. In the tradition of Janet Malcolm, Rachel Monroe has turned our cultural hunger for crime stories back on itself, both evoking and interrogating the fascinations that grip us. I learned a great deal from this book, but what’s more, I couldn’t put it down."
—Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
"A deeply intelligent, intensely gripping work of metacrime. Rachel Monroe is a brilliant new journalist with a sparkly goth heart."
—Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus and Battleborn
“Getting pulled into a true crime story is like coming down with a fever — all at once it envelops you, then leaves you wondering what overtook you. Rachel Monroe dissects the nature of that obsession on both individual and societal levels in lucid and beautiful prose. You’ll find this book as engrossing as any true crime wormhole on the internet.”
—Michelle Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion
"A brilliant book, laced with a perspective that's long been missing from the world of true crime. Rachel Monroe holds up a mirror to our fascination with illicit tales—and her own—all while deftly unspooling four unforgettable stories from the other side. Savage Appetites is wholly unique and utterly riveting."
—Evan Ratliff, author of The Mastermind
"No one writes about crime like Rachel Monroe, who brings to her subject a profound emotional acuity, a piercing grasp of fixation and frailty, and a precise sort of beauty that never glamorizes but always illuminates. In Savage Appetites, she shows crime obsession to be an equally idiosyncratic, irresistible subject—full of treachery and full of thrills."
—Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror
"I loved this book. I'm not a true-crime fan, but I am fan of brilliant reporting, nuanced cultural criticism, sparkling-clear writing, disarming wit, and the kind of courageous self-indictment that marks the best personal writing. Savage Appetites is a beautiful hybrid of a book that made me question my relationship to celebrity, media, and my own baser appetites."
—Claire Dederer, author of Love and Trouble and Poser
“Savage Appetites is a marvel of original reportage and cultural criticism, and could not be more timely. Like a first responder to a crime scene, Rachel Monroe methodically investigates every inch of America’s obsession with murder stories, unearthing more than a few discoveries, and showing that what makes us tick now has been there all along.”
—Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own