The Season has finally turned! We can now breathe a collective sigh of relief and stop spending the college fund on air-conditioning. Of course we remain vigilant, lest the ugly Specter of InterminableSouthernSummer makes an autumnal appearance, but October has arrived and Trick-or-Treat draws near. And if you’re someone who loves to celebrate Fall by curling up with a bag of pre-leftover Halloween candy and tales of grisly murders, then we are kindred spirits, and I have two books that are perfect for the occasion. Both delve into the cultural craze of female fascination with serial killers. The first examines four archetypes of women who are drawn to stories of true crime, and each section is devoted to one fascinating representative figure. The second is about a woman with whom America has long been fascinated: beloved author Harper Lee, and her obsession with the serial crime she believed would be the basis for her final book.
Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession by Rachel Monroe
Anyone who has mindlessly flipped through the channels on a Sunday night or is it at all familiar with the podcast landscape knows that true crime is all the rage. Take the Oxygen Channel. Originally meant to be a channel that appealed broadly to women on matters of lifestyle and pop culture, by 2017, it had essentially become devoted to all-crime, all-the-time. One Huffington Post article observed: “Adult women, the industry has realized, are bonkers for true crime.”
Savage Appetites breaks down the Oxygen allure in four profiles. First, “The Detective.” Frances Glesser Lee is an eccentric Chicago heiress who found purpose in the study of unsolved crimes. In the 1940s and 50s, she gained acclaim for her creation of sophisticated, elaborate diorama miniatures of crime scenes, meant to be used in the training of police officers. Her ardent hope was that her work would be the foundation of a new forensic science department at Harvard, but her prickly personality ultimately undid her dream.
Part two, “The Victim,” focuses on Alisa Statman, a young would-be actress who, in 1990, happened to move into the guest cottage of the estate where Sharon Tate was murdered decades before. Statman became so invested in the Manson crime that she beguiled herself into the Tate family and became, through various subterfuges, a virtual public spokesperson for the family and victims. Was she seeking justice or fame by osmosis?
Next is “The Defender.” Lorri Davis, a 32-year-old professional living in New York City, felt profoundly absent from her own life. After seeing a documentary on the West Memphis Three, she became consumed with the case. After working up the nerve to strike up a prison correspondence with defendant Damien Echols, they embarked on a passionate emotional affair which culminated in a prison wedding months before Echols was released. But could Lorri live happily-ever-after with a husband who was no longer a cause?
The final (and darkest) chapter is “The Killer.” This “killer “ is a misfit suburban teenager who finds belonging in the internet subculture of idolatry of the Columbine murderers. In this online world, she meets a sullen hermetic Canadian and begins a long-distance relationship with him, which culminates in a badly planned, ill-fated trip to execute their shared dream of joining the ranks of mass shooters who became celebrities. Why does a young girl dream of killing her way to fame?
These women are extreme examples—well outside any normal interest in the dark side of human nature that most of us indulge with a good old-fashioned Law & Order: SVU marathon. The genius of Savage Appetites is that it allows us to make up our own minds about the why and who and how of this phenomenon—and that is fascinating.
Willie Maxwell was a sharp-dressed man who had a way with the ladies. Born a black sharecropper’s son in Alabama in 1925, there was not much to suggest a big future for Willie—but he exceeded expectations. By the time he was put on trial in 1971 for the death of his first wife, Maxwell was a WWII veteran, entrepreneur, and celebrated preacher. He had also become an expert in the life insurance industry. If you were a relative of Willie Maxwell’s, no matter how remote, there was a pretty good chance that Rev. Maxwell had a policy on your life. And he cashed in.
Willie was never convicted of any crime (I won’t give away the end of his story), but the more interesting puzzle is that of Harper Lee and the book she didn’t write. Maxwell’s story was in many respects more titillating than In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (the book with which Lee is widely credited), and Lee became obsessed with the case. The famous recluse even appeared in court to observe proceedings, though few would have known her by sight. She intended to call her second book The Reverend—but it never came to pass. Furious Hours does a masterful job of building to that disappointing result, yet the mystery of Lee’s last work remains: ours to ponder, and regret.
Just-for-Fun Bonus Fiction: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Yes, yes, her beautiful sister is a serial killer, and under-appreciated Korede is left with the messy clean-up, literally, but you’ll want to read this book because of the killer writing. The humor is, of course, quite wicked.
Happy Reading and Happy Halloween!
Guest columnist Keltie Peay is a top graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law (Class of 1998) and Harvard College (Class of 1995). Following law school graduation, she clerked with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and the following year, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Prior to devoting her professional life to the dissemination of big – and small – ideas through books (both as an independent copy editor and bookseller with Parnassus Books), Keltie practiced white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation with the Nashville law firm of Neal & Harwell and the national firm Redgrave LLP. Her column, The Reader’s Docket, appears on Latitude’s blog Insights the third Thursday of every month. All of Keltie’s past and current recommendations are listed here and available for purchase online through Parnassus Books.