The Comfort of Monsters, by Willa C. Richards

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

I don’t know what the statistics are on unsolved murders versus solved murders, but I do know that there are a lot more of the former than the latter. Sometimes cases go unsolved because there are no clues to follow, or because the technology doesn’t exist that can analyze the clues. Sometimes, a murder goes unsolved because no one knows a crime occurred. Hopefully, rarely, murders go unsolved because no one cares. A combination of all of these factors conspire to keep the disappearance of protagonist Margaret McBride’s sister in The Comfort of Monsters, by Willa C. Richards. Dee McBride disappeared around the same time that Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and his mind-bogglingly horrific crimes came to light. Years later, no one knows what happened to her.

The Comfort of Monsters moves back and forth between 1991 and now. Both plotlines center on Margaret McBride. The Margaret of now is a barely functioning woman. She has just lost her job (again). Her family and romantic relationships are tenuous and fraught. Her Milwaukee apartment is full of case notes, testimonies, and legal textbooks that Margaret uses to constantly go over what she knows about her sister’s disappearance in July 1991. Margaret and her family have tried everything they can think of to find Dee. By the time we meet them, the McBrides are about to hire a very expensive TV psychic in a last ditch effort to find Dee’s remains. The Margaret of 1991 is, if not carefree, certainly someone who has no fucks to give. She drinks, does drugs, and spends a lot of time in sketchy places with her sister, Dee. Margaret and her boyfriend (with whom she has what we would now call a BDSM relationship, but they don’t have any rules or safe words) live in Riverwest, the same neighborhood as Dahmer. They don’t know this, of course, until the rest of the city finds out what he was up to in his apartment.

Dee’s disappearance is completely unrelated to Dahmer, but Dahmer kept the police so busy that the McBride’s only have one uninterested detective to look into Dee’s disappearance. Margaret pushes for Detective Wolski to look into Dee’s abusive boyfriend, but Wolski thinks that Dee just packed up and left. Dee’s fictional case is contrasted the murders of Konerak Sinthasomphone and the rest of Dahmer’s victims. Wolski’s indifference looks a lot like the Milwaukee Police Department’s indifference to crimes committed against gay men. By the time the police start to act, it’s too late to collect evidence and witness memories have faded. Thirty years later, in Dee’s case, it’s little wonder that the McBrides have called in a psychic. I’m not sure what’s worse for them: having no hope or having just enough hope to think that, all these years later, they might have an answer.

At the same time this is going on, we also get to see how Dee’s disappearance has affected Margaret. The sisters were incredibly close. No matter how much they fought, they would always make up. They shared each other’s secrets. They also share a similar affinity for men who “just can’t control themselves.” In Margaret’s case, we know that she likes rough sex (although she’s very ashamed of it). I’m not sure about Dee. Her boyfriend is violent, too, but more in the controlling/angry model. The juxtaposition is deeply unsettling because it forces you to try and find the line between different kinds of violence. Can a couple be said to have a healthy relationship if they never set boundaries on what one half can do to the other? If there are no safe words? If they’ve never even discussed this part of their sex life? Is it acceptable kink? Or is Margaret’s boyfriend another abuser? Someone with more knowledge of BDSM might be able to answer these questions.

The Comfort of Monsters is a challenging read, for so many reasons. And yet, I found myself fascinated by the questions Richards’ raised in her story. The Comfort of Monsters falls into the growing subgenre of mystery novels that examine the long aftermath of violent crime and that tell the stories of the people who are left behind to try and rebuild their lives after a loved one has been taken from them. In this example, we see characters who don’t know what happened to their loved one, not even where their remains are, after three decades. Readers who also like more intellectual true crime should enjoy this book, if they can handle the mix of sex and violence.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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