Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe

REVIEW: Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe

Publication information: August 20th, 2019 by Scribner

Description (from Goodreads):

A provocative and original investigation of our cultural fascination with crime, linking four archetypes—Detective, Victim, Attorney, 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 bored 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. 

Two sentence review: Slightly confusing and jumbled take on women and true crime presented through a focus on four different women that have taken different roles in relation to crime – detective, victim, attorney and killer. Features references to some well-known cases but it remained unclear to me who the intended audience of this book is and what Monroe is exactly attempting to argue.

If I were to summarize my thoughts about this book to two words, those words would be “too” and “messy”.

Maybe I am just not perceptive enough or wasn’t the intended audience, but I never really got what Monroe was trying to do with this book. Did she aim to write about her own relationship with true crime? Is this about her passion cases or cases that have somehow shaped her? Or is this a critique of the true crime phenomenon and especially women interest in it? I guess one single book could do all, but this does not do it. I constantly just kept feeling like “pick a lane”.

Though using the word “fan” or “enthusiast” feels somewhat wrong in connection to true crime, I do consume a lot of it in different forms and consider myself a “follower” of certain figures involved in the true crime world – podcasters as well as these “archetypal” detectives Monroe quite cattily writes about. If the intended audience of the book is people like me, I think Monroe doesn’t do very well, because I constantly kept finding things I would want to argue about.

Yes, true crime can be extremely problematic. After all, murder and crime are problematic. There definitely are dark corners on the internet where crimes and criminals are idolized and romanticized BUT I would argue that the growing popularity of true crime has also been a positive phenomenon. Through its growing popularity and demand attention has been brought for long-forgotten cases, some of which have even been solved at least partly due to podcasters and podcast listeners – take for example the case of Tara Grinstead covered on the first season of Up and Vanished.

Another thing this growing true crime phenomenon has given is a platform for the victims’ families to tell their stories in their own way. Take for example the phenomenal Canadian podcast Someone Knows Something and its several seasons that really give the families a voice and an opportunity to speak about the cases that have touched them in life-changing ways.

And let’s not forget the fact that by learning about these cases many, especially women, find themselves more prepared to defend themselves or to stay away from situations that could prove to be dangerous.

Turning the criminal justice system into entertainment of sorts and often featuring cases where the criminal justice system has failed to work in a desirable way obviously has as effect on how people form opinions about the system. Very little research can be found about how true crime shapes peoples’ perceptions about the criminal justice system, but it is true, as Monroe points out on Savage Appetites that shows like CSI have really transformed the ways in which many perceive the work of detectives, forensic scientists, lawyers, and so on. Rather than feeding into this CSI phenomenon, though, I would argue that many true crime shows try to debunk that, especially through the involvement of detectives, forensic scientists, and so on, who clearly voice the difficulties involved with, for example, acquiring DNA evidence or navigating through the complicated justice system.

As Monroe argues, growing media coverage also makes it often seem like there is more crime going on than there actually is, which might lead to certain politicians getting more attention with their hard of crime policies and so on. I do not argue that this is not a real thing, because it definitely is, but at the same time I feel like pointing something like this out in a book that feels like it is written for people who are already into true crime is not really necessary as I do think that everyone who consumes true crime actively, and is likely thus interested in picking up a book like this, already knows that.

Though I do not want to generalize, I would argue that active true crime consumers are very aware of the fact that true crime in any form does not tell the whole story – that is exactly why there are these massive databases of information online put together by people who want to see beyond the picture that is presented in books, documentaries, tv shows and podcasts.

I don’t think things are as black and white as Monroe portrays them on Savage Appetites and found it difficult to navigate through the messy structure of the book. Thus, as said before, I am still unclear on what Monroe was actually attempting to argue with this one. The first portion, the section titled the detective was interesting enough and I did order a book about the person focused on that section, Frances Gressner Lee, who was influential in developing forensic science in the United States. Unfortunately, the other sections focused on so well-known cases so I did not even get the “joy” of discovering a new case to read about. Basically, Monroe is mostly just repeating what has been said before by others.

Also, I thought it would be worth pointing out that I found a quite problematic account about the author and her treatment of one of the persons’ involved in one of the sections of the book from Goodreads. Not sure how accurate this is since the author has not been involved in those discussions, but I thought it would be worth pointing out. You can find the whole discussion from here. This is indeed very problematic if true!

So, all in all, Savage Appetites was a disappointment, which I kind of thought would be a possibility due to the very mixed reviews of it I had come across before. With more structure and clearer arguments there could have been something here but unfortunately as it is, Savage Appetites wasn’t for me. You have to make your own decisions about whether to give this one a chance, but if you do recognize sharing similar thoughts as I have shared on this review, maybe leave this one to the bookstore and pick up something else.


Rating: 2 out of 5.


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