Serial killer narratives as a genre tend to focus on the perpetrators; capitalizing on the public’s shivery fascination with the mind of a killer, sensationalizing the murderer while his typically female victims become, at best, parenthetical; romanticized cautionary tales of lives cut short rather than unique and complex individuals in their own rights. This novel upends that structure, taking the criminal out of the spotlight and shifting the focus to the women who are directly or indirectly affected by his actions. The psychological makeup of the killer is eschewed here in favor of the vibrancy of these women’s lives; their ambitions and hopes, their grief and regrets, the way they see themselves, not how they are seen through the filter of a predator.
These Women is set in 2014 in West Adams, a Los Angeles neighborhood divided by a freeway, characterized by an economic patchwork of upscale residences and strip malls, where, amid the lingering evidence of the 1992 riots, historic mansions have been repurposed into boardinghouses, where the smell of smoke from wildfires in the hills drifts down into the streets below, while hummingbirds and a flock of bright-green parrots provide unexpected bursts of color against a squalid backdrop of prostitutes working streets “wide and grimy, busy with buses and homeless making camp next to the on-ramps.”
Here, after lying dormant for 15 years, a killer of 13 women — primarily sex workers of color — will renew his attacks, taking four more victims over the course of 18 months, dumping their bodies in alleyways with their throats cut and bags over their heads.
The story is divided between six female characters, all of whom are connected in some way to the killer: Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was the last girl murdered during the 1999 killing spree; Feelia, the only woman to survive her attack; Julianna, a stripper very similar in appearance to her former babysitter Lecia; Julianna’s next-door neighbor Marella, an artist whose subject is “the destruction of the female body”; Marella’s mother Anneke, a rigid and overprotective elder care nurse; and Essie, a detective reassigned from Homicide to Vice after an off-duty incident resulted in the deaths of two young girls.
All of these women will become victims or survivors of the killer, either literally or psychologically, but that connection is just a detail. Pochoda’s focus is on their individual experiences and how they navigate the dangers of being a woman in the world.
Although the killer makes an appearance in each woman’s story, he’s a background figure, a predatory Where’s Waldo on the periphery of their lives. According to Essie’s profile, he is “[j]ust some guy. You wouldn’t recognize him. Wouldn’t notice him. Not in a crowd. Not sitting on his own porch.”
And for the most part, they don’t. Notice him. Recognize him for what he is. Blending into their lives and their stories unremarked. Unremarkable.
As the body count increases, Essie is the first to realize that not only are the recent murders the work of a single perpetrator, but that they are connected to the 1999 killings. Her colleagues ignore her findings: “Serial means more work. […] Perhaps they are intentionally blind. Or perhaps it’s the sort of women who’ve been killed that make their deaths irrelevant.”
The fact that the murdered women were sex workers makes them easily dismissed as victims of their own bad choices, disreputable women not worth the time and manpower of a serial investigation. Feelia recounts, “As far as the police were concerned I put myself in the way of an occupational hazard. Like getting your throat slit from time to time was part of the job description.”
The killings in 1999 remained unsolved, largely due to unpursued leads and a lack of motivation by the police. Witnesses, frequently of the same profession as the victims, were deemed unreliable. “You know what they’re like. All the drugs. Makes them paranoid.”
Feelia wasn’t even told that the details of her attack matched those of the murdered women:
Fifteen years someone’s known it was a serial killer did this to me. A serial killer they didn’t fucking catch.
Fifteen years nobody’s bothered to give me the news. Like I’m not worth their while. Like I don’t count. Like I don’t deserve to know.
Had my throat slit and I don’t deserve to know shit.
These women were denied justice by the police, who reduced them to how they earned their money, disregarding the rest of who they were. A friend of one of the victims reflects that she was “[d]iscarded dirty, not just with the grime from the alley, but with the filth of her clients. A dead hooker, not a dead mom, not a dead woman. A disrespect almost worse than murder.”
The press and the police classify the victims broadly as prostitutes, failing to account for the range of services provided by sex workers; the specific roles differentiating these women. Essie’s analytical mind enables her to identify both the patterns and the nuances others overlook, and she observes, “At the station they’ve been calling them prostitutes, but there’s more to it than that. Some of them are adjacent to the life. Cocktail waitresses, B-girls, as well as streetwalkers.”
Although women involved in the sex trade are more at risk, women are exposed to sexual advances and violence regardless of their profession, availability, or appearance. Lecia was killed on her way home from babysitting 11-year-old Julianna, who had often witnessed, and perhaps coveted, the male attention Lecia received; she “loved to tag along when her babysitter went to the corner market, listening to the men catcall from their cars, and the locals whistle from their porches.” Feelia was attacked while she was having a cigarette on her night off, and Julianna herself, 15 years later, is approached by the killer while she’s wearing a hoodie and sneakers, “not dressed for the game.”
Here, women are not exempt from male scrutiny even when they’re not working, even if they’re not working girls. They are assessed, commodified, objectified by men, whether they encourage it or not. One woman observes men “appraising her like she’s a test car at an auto show.” Another has been photographed with “[a] man behind her, staring at her like she’s candy.” Women are leered at, propositioned, and drunkenly hollered at by men driving by, from stoops or in parking lots, and there’s a fine line between the casual sexism of inebriated men letting off steam and the danger that can escalate from this unwanted attention.
The novel bristles with the dangers women face. The mother of a murdered girl warns, “This is a violent world, and to expect it won’t touch you is madness.” The presence of violence — or the threat of violence — in female lives is a recurring theme; memorials to dead women are scattered around the city and a single page contains references to “a young woman who died on the overpass or below on the freeway” and a bartender shot by her ex-boyfriend from the doorway of the bar where she worked. Women are murdered, beaten, stalked, made aware of their own vulnerability as they make their way through the city. At some point in this book, every female character, with the exception of Essie, feels like they are being followed, watched, targeted. Some of them are right.
Essie widens the at-risk population across the strata of the sex trade, noting that victims “are linked more closely by location than occupation.” Pochoda expands it even further, blurring the lines between these women, casualties of the life, and, simply, women: a killer of prostitutes murders a babysitter, strippers mingle with USC sorority girls at South Central house parties, and, as Feelia notes, “it’s not like I’m the only lady out on Western in heels, short skirt, top cut down to there. There’s me and there’s them like me and there’s all the others who dress just the same because that’s how they dress.”
In a particularly elegant, and chilling, juxtaposition, in the novel’s opening scene, a group of teenage girls are eating at Dorian’s restaurant, all performative swagger as they loudly tease each other about their sexual conquests, seemingly “[c]ongratulating themselves on leaving childhood behind,” turning the reader uncomfortably into a voyeur with their careless exhibition of flesh, “splaying their bodies over the counter. They’ve rolled the skirts of their uniforms high, revealing thigh, even a little cheek. A flash of underwear, trimmed with lace. They’ve unbuttoned their blouses, yanked down their polos, showing bra and breast.”
This dynamic, of sexually charged bravado among half-dressed women, “the fronts the girls put up for one another — the rough talk, the layers of makeup,” is mirrored in the interactions between Julianna and her friends as they prepare themselves for their evenings working at the Fast Rabbit, where some serve drinks or dance and some work the bar’s back room, offering “[l]ap dances and a whole lot more.” Julianna captures these moments in photographs featuring the women “vying for space in front of a mirror, backs to the camera, dressed in thongs, in miniskirts, boy shorts, and nothing at all. Their faces defiant in the reflection, challenging themselves with their beauty, arming themselves with kohl and gloss,” and taking drugs so “it didn’t half matter whose hands were where and what her mouth and the rest of her was doing all night.”
Far from their own childhoods, Julianna and her friends represent a possible future version of those teen girls, women who have seen others like them slip through the cracks; women who have OD’d, been beaten, been murdered, been discarded, been forgotten.
Marella incorporates Julianna’s photographs into one of her installation pieces; a cycle called Dead Body, whose aesthetic intention is to explore “femininity and fragility […] power and subjugation” centering on the female experience of violence: “Violence is all around us. Sexual. Physical. I am embodying that. I’m re-creating the everyday fear that goes hand in hand for women — the lack of safety. We are prey.”
Although naïve and sheltered in many ways, Marella knows that violence against women is not limited to society’s undesirables, and should be confronted, not brushed off in the hopes it will go away. She wants her audience “to feel it — that sensation of being followed down the street, being watched. Except more. Not just followed, caught.”
Projecting a slideshow of Julianna’s photographs of her friends and co-workers, one of whom is a recent victim of the killer, Marella sees beyond their surface tawdriness to the women themselves, in all of their aspects: “Those women, the powerful mess of them. The confidence fading to vacancy. The power dissolving into despair. The challenge they pose to the viewer, the confrontation and the temptation. The strength and desperation.”
Although Essie is less likely than her male colleagues to ignore a witness statement because of how they earn their living, to her, the victims are simply facts and details, not individuals. In a brief exchange that perfectly summarizes the novel’s raison d’être, Essie brushes aside Dorian’s insistence that her daughter was not a sex worker as unimportant, interpreting her denial as the emotional response of a distraught mother. “What matters is who killed her, not who she was,” she tells Dorian. Dorian replies, “Both of those things matter.”
While serial killers dehumanize their victims, and true crime reportage reduces them to before and after photographs, here Pochoda restores their humanity, giving these women identities beyond their relationship to the killer, like a crime fiction Bechdel. Death is only the last part of a person’s life, and although Anneke — the novel’s least sympathetic character — claims, “it doesn’t matter how you lived, only how you died,” Pochoda’s argument is that what matters isn’t how women die, but that they lived.
Karen Brissette is the most popular reviewer on Goodreads. She also maintains the blog Bloggy Come Lately.