Alice Bolin's debut collection of essays, Dead Girls, illuminates a mystery that has plagued me ever since I moved to the Pacific Northwest: Why is everyone out here so obsessed with serial killers?
Bolin approaches the question with a suite of four essays that lay out the mechanics of what she calls the "dead girl" trope, pulling from many specimens of noir and any other narrative instigated by the horrific murder of a beautiful, young, white girl.
Beginning with a smart and conversational analysis of Twin Peaks and True Detective, Bolin argues that these shows aren't really about journeying "toward existential knowledge." Writers on these shows really just use a dead white girl as "the catalyst for the fun of sleuthing," a prop that allows them (and the audience) to play out fantasies of committing violent acts against women.
"If these stories... have one thing in common, every step of the way, it's men," Bolin writes. "Men are the problem."
The mysteries of the serial killer's mind aren't really so mysterious. Quoting Spokane novelist Jess Walter, who covered serial killers as a reporter at the Spokesman-Review, Bolin reminds us that serial killers are typically "weak-minded losers" who are, "in some important and horrifying way, smaller than life." The reasons why non-serial-killer men kill women aren't mysterious, either. Domestic-violence statistics show that three women a day are killed by their intimate partners, often after a layoff or some other kind of ego-bruising event.
But Bolin doesn't write off the dead-girl genre just because it hinges on the extremely popular and lucrative activity of punishing women while pretending you're saving them. (In fact, in her introduction, Bolin is quick to admit her own book's title is evidence of "a lurid and cutesy complicity." But listen, a girl's got to eat.) She sees helpful correctives in more subversive examples of the genre, such as the TV show Pretty Little Liars, which restores agency to the "dead girl."
Bolin comes to these subjects naturally. Growing up in the inland Pacific Northwest, a land filled with serial killers and Ruby Ridge–style gunmen, she feels an intimate connection with these stories. (Her dad's collection of Swedish noir helped, too.) She describes as her initiation into womanhood the act of reading "The Trail to a Serial Killer" in the Spokesman-Review in her isolated house in the already isolated town of Moscow, Idaho. "I learned that there were legions of hopeless women and they could be hurt and hidden so easily," she writes.
This sense of isolation and the special route Bolin had to take to climb out of it becomes the underlying emotional subject of her book, one that binds together her "dead girl" essays with the other must-read essays in the book, including her "Hello to All That" stories about Los Angeles, her complicated relationship with the work of Joan Didion, and the particularly dark loneliness of Britney Spears.
Though the subjects can be heavy, her self-consciousness about her obsession with pop culture leads to some wonderful bits of self-deprecating humor, which is accompanied by an equally sharp self-critical mode. The book is a great diagnosis of some pretty popular addictions and ills—and after reading it, you feel like you made a new friend.