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The Comfort of Monsters

Review

The Comfort of Monsters

Set against the backdrop of the “Dahmer summer” of 1991, debut author Willa C. Richards’ THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS is a haunting page-turner about the aftermath of a shocking disappearance and the hold that memory has over us.

Thirty years ago, Peg’s younger sister, Candace “Dee” McBride, vanished without a trace on the Fourth of July in the middle of a summer of racial unrest, a divided and beleaguered police force, and the serial killings of a then-unknown Jeffrey Dahmer. Labeled a “noncritical” case by the Milwaukee police, Dee’s disappearance went uninvestigated for too long. The evidence, suspicions and memories of her family, friends and coworkers dried up like deserted house plants over the following years.

However, with Peg’s mother on her deathbed, the McBride family revisits Dee’s case themselves. They draw upon the gifts of famed psychic Thomas Alexander to help them find Dee’s body --- if not solve the case --- so that she finally can be laid to rest alongside her mother. But as Thomas delivers shocking blows, Peg, who has strived to remember every single detail of that summer, finds her memory riddled with holes she didn’t know were there.

Written in two timelines, one chronicling the summer of Dee’s disappearance and the other tracing the family’s new investigation with Thomas, THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS unfolds slowly, with Peg driving the action through recollection and grief. In 1991, we meet a teenaged Dee, head over heels in love with her much older boyfriend, Frank. Though Peg and Dee have always been close, Dee’s romance with Frank, who Peg finds creepy and gross, drives a wedge between them, one rarely confronted by either sibling, as both are involved in their own love lives and careers. Peg is dating a man named Leif, and though he is less obviously dangerous than Frank, their relationship, particularly in the bedroom, hinges on an unspoken fault line of violence.

"This is not an easy book to read, as Richards is unflinching in her depictions of violence and tragedy, but it is a creative and exceptionally clear-eyed one and most certainly will stay with you."

Though the sisters never become entirely estranged, their relationship is only unified when Leif’s younger brother, Erik, comes to town. Newly out to his homophobic family, Erik thrives in Milwaukee’s gay party scene, but even he can see that something terrible and dangerous has woven its way into the safe spaces and gay bars where people like him have found refuge. Young men, mostly those of color, are disappearing, and with homophobia guiding the police and media, no one is keeping track of their cases. In an effort to protect Erik from a similar fate, Peg and Dee take turns housing him, despite their boyfriends’ complaints.

The Milwaukee of 1991 is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, and Richards painstakingly evokes a sense of the urgency and drama unfolding there, even as Peg and Dee are consumed by their own petty dramas and slights. Bordered by gorgeous waterways and murky swamplands, and ridden with violence and poverty, it is a city built on contrasts. The power of nature is ever-present, but so too is the draw of city life, drugs and money, sex and brutality. Peg and Dee alone seem like a bright spot in Milwaukee’s drudgery, two sisters who call one another “babe,” who can go out drinking as easily as they can stay in watching television and snuggling. But when Frank mistakes Erik for a competitor, and Peg and Dee find themselves self-soothing with drugs and alcohol, Dee witnesses a horrifying moment in Peg’s relationship and flees, never to be seen again.

Thirty years later, Thomas mentions this singular, secret moment to Peg, something that only she and the detective long ago assigned to Dee’s case know. So she is forced to reconcile her memories of that summer with the hard facts of the remaining evidence. But digging deep into her memories --- particularly those blinded by the media explosion of the Dahmer case and others warped by substance abuse, trauma and grief --- raises doubts in the facts that she previously took for granted, and she starts to wonder if she could have done something to prevent her sister’s disappearance. All the while, she must question the act of memorizing and the notion that it is only after the fact that we can determine which details are worth committing to memory, often long after they have lost their crystal-clear luster and become malleable to the effects of time.

THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS is a slow burn novel, neither flashy nor twisty, yet undeniably compelling and complex. Through the combination of a “missing girl” plotline and a setting marked by a summer of death and disappearance, Richards is able to tackle numerous heavy, poignant themes in one fell swoop. Through Peg, she unpacks the legacy of misogyny that deems women conniving and cunning, unworthy of belief, while also probing the flaws in memory, our most powerful yet most pliable tool for uncovering the truth. Through Peg's relationship with Dee, Richards confronts the competitive nature that exists in women, the ways that we all want to be better and more desirable than one another, even when we know the prize for beauty and attractiveness is often more misogyny.

Finally, through the backdrop of the Dahmer case, Richards draws searing comparisons to the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting the ways that the very systems set in place to protect us have failed our most vulnerable citizens. In less dexterous hands, Dahmer's presence would be distracting or disorienting. But for Richards, having already crafted an evocative sense of time and place, it feels necessary, as much a part of Dee’s disappearance as a body would be if only Peg and the Milwaukee police could find one.

A haunting exploration of memory and consequence, THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS is a riveting novel perfect for fans of Elizabeth Wetmore's VALENTINE and Emma Cline's THE GIRLS. This is not an easy book to read, as Richards is unflinching in her depictions of violence and tragedy, but it is a creative and exceptionally clear-eyed one and most certainly will stay with you.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 23, 2021

The Comfort of Monsters
by Willa C. Richards

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0063053020
  • ISBN-13: 9780063053021