JULY 3, 2021
IN 2004, while moderating a panel at a conference for journalists, the late PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to describe the mainstream media’s seemingly obsessive coverage of missing persons cases involving white women, as well as its relative disinterest in cases involving people of color. Many social scientists have since written about this phenomenon, including Zach Sommers of Northwestern University, whose 2016 study of four national news outlets found that coverage about missing white women was statistically greater than their proportions among missing persons cases, and cases involving women were much more likely to be featured than men.
In Willa C. Richards’s provocative debut novel, The Comfort of Monsters, 19-year-old Candace (“Dee”) McBride goes missing in Milwaukee during the summer of 1991. At first glance, Dee is exactly the type of woman in whom the media would take an outsize interest. She’s an attractive white co-ed and aspiring artist who attends a liberal arts college run by nuns. But a serial killer is on the loose in the city (revealed early in the novel as real-life mass murderer, rapist, and “Milwaukee Cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer). As a result, the police are stretched thin and the families of his numerous victims — mostly black and brown gay men — are clamoring for attention. In effect, the gruesomeness of Dahmer’s crimes inverts the usual focus of the missing white woman syndrome, making it difficult for Dee’s family to generate any interest in her case from the media, the police, or the community.
Dee’s older sister, Peg, serves as the novel’s quiet, introspective narrator. She’s the last person to see Dee alive — under circumstances she’s initially too ashamed to talk about, an omission that will have lasting repercussions on the case. As the police investigation sputters and stalls, and the days turn into weeks and months, Peg is forced to consider a future without her beloved sister. “I won’t live without her,” she declares, and she’s almost right. At the novel’s start, which opens nearly 30 years after Dee’s still-unsolved disappearance, Peg is barely surviving. Recently fired from her library job for missing weeks of work and stealing books about federal evidence laws, Peg is alone, living off her dwindling savings, prone to reckless behavior like drunk driving, and so broken by loss that her niece says, not as criticism or complaint, but clear-eyed teenage observation: “You’re so sad.”
Richards’s novel unfolds over multiple timelines — primarily 1991 and 2019 — fueled by circumstances in 2019 that bring new life and urgency to Dee’s case. One impetus is the rapidly deteriorating health of Ma, Dee and Peg’s mother, whose dying wish is to find her youngest child’s body so they can be buried next to each other. The other is the 25th anniversary of Dahmer’s death. (After his capture in 1991, he received a life sentence and was murdered by a fellow inmate in 1994.) When famed psychic Thomas Alexander arrives in Milwaukee to lead a series of special Dahmer “ghost tours,” Ma decides to hire him to locate Dee’s remains, an expensive and obvious act of desperation that Peg and her older brother, Pete, initially question. As Peg observes:
Three decades before, I would have said, and I believe my mother would have agreed with me, that we weren’t the kind of people who hired psychics. But later I finally understood, given the right circumstances, anyone can be the right type of person.
Peg’s desperation to find her sister’s body stems from a different place than her mother’s. Through her study of evidence laws, she understands that without this key piece of evidence, she has no hope of proving what she’s known with certainty for decades: that Dee’s boyfriend in 1991, Frank Cavelli, is her killer. “No body; no crime. [The police have] repeated this mantra so often over the years that I’ve begun to hear it at all times, like it’s etched onto one of the very fine bones inside my ear.”
Richards is wise to lean into the absurdity of the psychic, dolling Alexander up as a 22-year-old with immaculately groomed features, thousands of followers on Instagram, an entourage, and a flair for the dramatic. Part man-child, part potential con man, Alexander charges the McBrides a small fortune for his services and stuns Peg when he names a different man as Dee’s killer. Although she remains steadfastly convinced of Frank’s guilt, she wrestles with the subjective nature of her memories, as well as her desire to cling to memories that might be flawed because they’re all she has left of her sister. Peg notes:
I realized that we must choose to believe the stories we’re told. Even the stories we tell about one another. We dedicate ourselves to our own versions, and yet we are slow, reticent even, to admit how much we participate in the creation of these stories we tell about our lives and about the lives of those we love.
Readers seeking the brisk pace of a traditional thriller may be disappointed by Richards’s pacing. To be clear: Her novel is absolutely thrilling. But it’s a slow unspooling that demands patience, akin to searching for something on an old cassette tape, hitting “play,” “rewind,” and “fast forward” over and over again. Richards deftly moves through time as Peg pores over the details of the summer that Dee went missing, seeing old details anew and recasting herself as an accessory, accomplice, and occasional bad actor. She blames herself for decisions that may have contributed to her sister’s disappearance and/or given the police reason not to take the investigation more seriously. Among her deepest regrets is withholding her knowledge about Frank’s existence from her family and the police because “Dee and I worked to keep each other’s secrets. I still didn’t want Ma and Pete to know I was living with [my boyfriend] Leif, and Dee wasn’t ready to tell them she was seeing a grown Guido.”
The men in this novel do not present well. Within each of them exists a capacity for violence and harm that ranges from lip service to actual deed. As a young man, Pete expresses a desire to kill Frank that he longs to act on. Peg’s boyfriend, Leif, a poet who works in the same chocolate factory as Dahmer, once whispers to her: “Sometimes I just want to beat the shit out of you […] Just when we’re fucking, I mean.” Leif’s younger brother, Erik, who is estranged from their family because of his sexuality, carries himself like a match waiting to be struck, quickly coming to blows over any perceived insult. Wolski, the lone detective assigned to the case, fails to take certain evidence into account because of his assumptions about the type of woman Dee is. And then there’s Frank, whose transgressions are many, ranging from lying to leering to violence and possibly murder, and yet he’s the one who gets to move on after the summer of 1991 and have a family, a career, and a life.
The novel paints a disturbing, rage-provoking portrait of the effects and extremes of misogyny, starting with a series of incidents when Peg and Dee are young girls and accelerating through Dee’s likely death at Frank’s hands. In between are more incidents in which the sisters discover themselves sexually, flirting with a kind of violence that marks both their bodies and their psyches. Ultimately, some of their choices affect what the families of Dahmer’s victims have known all along: that perceptions of identity affect which missing persons’ lives are noticed and which go on to be largely ignored. Peg eventually becomes sensitive to this inequity, at one point reflecting:
People said their sons’ disappearances would have been taken seriously if they’d been pretty white women, not gay men of color. I wholeheartedly agreed. I only wanted to add two words — pretty, rich and good white women. […] It turns out you often have to be a lot of things to make the news care about you and to make you worthy of search and rescue.
Twice in recent months, when I mentioned to bookish friends that I was reading Richards’s forthcoming debut, they both essentially asked the same question: “Isn’t that the new Dahmer novel?” As writers well know, the marketing campaigns and resulting associations that readers attach to a book can sometimes take on a life of their own. But Willa C. Richards’s debut is so much bigger and smarter than simply just “the Dahmer novel,” which courts a kind of sensationalism that the novel itself avoids. The Comfort of Monsters is an intense and artful examination of the relationships between sex, power, violence, and identity, as well as the deeply subjective nature of human memory. It’s a bravura performance by Richards that should demand readers’ attention, not because of the apex of violence that Dahmer’s crimes represent, but the spectrum of violence experienced by her richly drawn, psychologically complex characters.