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Behold the Monster: Confronting America's Most Prolific Serial Killer

Review

Behold the Monster: Confronting America's Most Prolific Serial Killer

Published in 1966, Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD changed the American literary landscape. Often classified as a “nonfiction novel,” it recounted the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959. What made the book extraordinary, in addition to Capote’s unique and engaging narrative voice, was his own emotional engagement with the story, his relationship with the killers he interviewed, and how his research unfolded in real time. Capote’s work laid the foundation for much of today's true crime writing, found both in print and on podcasts. Writer Jillian Lauren enters Capote’s arena with BEHOLD THE MONSTER: Confronting America's Most Prolific Serial Killer.

"Like Capote's novel, BEHOLD THE MONSTER is literary, imaginative, emotional, dark and unsettling, incredibly personal, and written with a creative and formidable voice."

Like Capote, Lauren devoted years to researching and writing. And, like him, she spent hours in conversation with the killer. In writing about Samuel Little --- his crimes, his history and his victims --- Lauren notes that the book “was meant to be a classic true crime reportage” but “morphed into a hybrid of memoir, journalism, true crime, and narrative lyricism.” Readers are thus challenged to see the story through a variety of perspectives as Lauren shares the horrific vantage point of Little himself and imagines the lives of several of the women he killed.

BEHOLD THE MONSTER covers Little’s upbringing, adult life and many of his crimes in gruesome detail. His victim list, those murders solved and many unsolved but attributed to him, is extensive. But Little, who died in prison of COVID-related complications, remains relatively unknown as a serial killer. For at least three decades, he targeted vulnerable women, often addicts and sex workers, strangling them to death and dumping their bodies in fairly public places. Lauren does a good job of not romanticizing him and avoiding some of the base tropes that can be common in true crime.

Lauren lets Little speak for himself, encouraging him with her attention during in-person visits and phone calls. She describes the various awful facets of his personality that she sees, naming them “Three-Card Monte,” “Snake Monster” and “Perv Grandpa.” As Little reveals himself in a variety of ways, Lauren can understand more about his crimes and the women he harmed. Still, she knows that much of what she sees of him is an act and she can never fully trust what he tells her.

The rapport between Lauren and Little might be disconcerting for readers. She addresses this explicitly: “Who develops a deeply personal and complex relationship with a sexual strangler just to get a jump on a story? I took his daily phone calls… I called him Big Daddy and Mr. Sam, and I sang lullabies to him. I sang to a man who tortured women to death for fun… Our Big Daddy and his little kitty cat routine was a vaudeville act. We held currency for each other… Was the way I worked with him morally reprehensible? Revenge porn meets amateur detective work? Good journalism? Shape-shifting? Plain shifty? The product of my efforts will be tried by a jury of my peers.”

One product of Lauren’s efforts is particularly noteworthy. Working with law enforcement specializing in cold cases, she is instrumental in connecting Little to some unsolved murders. This brings some satisfaction to an otherwise unrelentingly grim tale and moves the book into the realm of active good as opposed to the kind of passive and sensational voyeurism that readers find in certain true crime.

In the end, Lauren offers a chilling account of murder as she examines the genre, the role of journalists, and her own emotional and professional responses to her work. It is a terrible tale, but she warmly invites readers into her life as she remembers the lives of the many who died having crossed paths with Little. Like Capote's novel, BEHOLD THE MONSTER is literary, imaginative, emotional, dark and unsettling, incredibly personal, and written with a creative and formidable voice.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 28, 2023

Behold the Monster: Confronting America's Most Prolific Serial Killer
by Jillian Lauren

  • Publication Date: July 18, 2023
  • Genres: Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks
  • ISBN-10: 1728267757
  • ISBN-13: 9781728267753