In breakout book, Marfa writer explores America’s lust for true crime

MARFA – True crime is having a moment — but why? Is it empathy? Cheap voyeurism? Because we’re all creepy and terrible people? Or do we hope that, by studying the tragedies that befall others, we can bring some order and safety to our own chaotic lives?

Such is the theme of Savage Appetites, the debut non-fiction novel of Marfa writer and freelance journalist Rachel Monroe.

Based around four criminal-justice archetypes — the detective, the victim, the defender and the killer — the book explores why Americans (and especially, often, women) have such a, um, savage appetite for true crime. It also quenches that appetite.

Questions about true crime’s appeal are personal for Monroe, who writes in the introduction to Savage Appetites: “I was the kind of gloomy child who filched her mother’s People magazines to read not about the celebrities, but about the killers and kidnappers and suspicious overdoses.” As she got older, she found that “the more sad or lost or angry I felt, the more I craved crime.”

Here, Monroe is perhaps selling herself short. She’s also freelanced a large number of high-quality magazine pieces, many of them about crimes. There’s the story for The Atlantic about a scam artist masquerading as an honorable suitor. The one for Outside about a murder in Terlingua. Another for Esquire about a missing Navajo girl and the botched attempt to find her before it was too late.

Monroe has explored other topics in her work as well, including pick-up artists and essential oils and #VanLife. “I have been wanting to look at the world from other angles,” she told the Big Bend Sentinel. “My next assignment is about wine.”

Savage Appetites came out on Tuesday. To celebrate the occasion, a few dozen people filed into Crowley Theater in Marfa to listen to Monroe read excerpts from her book.

Tim Johnson, owner of the Marfa Book Company, helped organize the event. He considers Monroe a friend and has been reading her work since around the time she arrived in Marfa, in 2012.

Johnson already knew Monroe was a talented reporter, but “there’s a certain validation that comes with a book,” he later told the Sentinel. Asked whether he was excited for Monroe, he said: “Hell yeah.”

At Crowley Theater, Monroe took the stage. Her book, she told the crowd, was “about what we do with other people’s pain.” She thanked Marfa for the support, including “feeding my cat and feeding me.”

And then she pivoted to crime.

Monroe first read from her introduction, “All Crime All the Time.” It describes Monroe’s experience attending CrimeCon in the Opryland hotel in Nashville, Tennessee — a comically opulent lodging, featuring a quarter-mile-long artificial river that ostensibly includes “a drop from every river in the world.” She then read excerpts from “The Killer,” which tells the story of an online misfit boy-and-girl duo who found human connection (and maybe even love?) while discussing the logistics of perpetrating a mass shooting.

In her interview with the Sentinel, Monroe was ambivalent about America’s obsession with true crime. On one hand, it’s helped make her a popular and successful non-fiction writer. But with it has come all sorts of cultural baggage, including the rise of online vigilantism and a sense that random online groups can do the same investigative work as, well, investigators.

“Online detectives,” she says, sometimes treat victims “like public property.” They poke and prod without empathy. If her writing is any sign, Rachel Monroe knows better.