A cross-border murder mystery’s real target: Our true-crime obsession
On the Shelf
More Than You'll Ever Know
By Katie Gutierrez
Morrow: 448 pages, $29
If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.
Cassie Bowman spends her workdays writing a ghoulish true-crime blog about murdered women. Then she stumbles across a decades-old story in which the tables are turned: The woman has the secret life and the man is the murder victim. Cassie sets out to find Lore Rivera, a Laredo, Texas, woman who had two simultaneous families, one in Texas and the other in Mexico City.
She aims to write a feminist true-crime book, hoping her readers will see Lore as more than a femme fatale who wrecked two families. But as Cassie — who is keeping her own history of abuse from her fiancé, Duke — becomes intertwined with her subject, the truth and the motives grow hazier and hazier.
Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel, “More Than You’ll Ever Know,” infuses the summer mystery genre with some serious ideas about our obsession with crime stories and our sense of women’s identities.
Gutierrez, a Laredo native who grew up reading Nancy Drew, then “Fear Street” and then her mother’s Patricia Cornwell novels, didn’t get into true crime until the first season of “Serial.” “But that pushed me over the edge, followed by all the prestige documentaries,” she said in a video interview that had to be interrupted for a stretch by a sick toddler. Our talk about representation in thrillers, the ethics of true crime and the double lives we all lead has been edited for length and clarity.
“Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life,” Michelle McNamara wrote in “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.”
What was so compelling about crime stories?
They always revolved around murdered women, kidnapped women, women in peril. It’s always women and mostly white women. Wondering why [that is] led me down a rabbit hole of investigating the cultural obsession with true crime. That led to certain unsettling conclusions, as far as who is disproportionately represented, who is allowed to be a victim. That was compelling to me as a writer.
Men are 80% of homicide victims, but when women are murdered it’s almost always by an intimate partner, which is horrifying. But Black and trans women are killed at much higher [rates]. It’s problematic to be telling those stories of white women over and over again.
Telling these stories can also create a false sense of danger, even if the danger is real in terms of sexual assault [as opposed to murder]. The disproportionate representation of women in true-crime stories doesn’t negate the fact that the most dangerous place for women is often in their homes.
Is there value in true crime when it’s done right?
Yes, when you read, say, Michelle McNamara [“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”], you see the moral center of her investigation. True crime can ignite interest in cases that flew under the radar, maybe because the victims are not considered traditionally sympathetic, like Christine Pelisek’s “The Grim Sleeper,” where the victims were Black sex workers [in Los Angeles].
But then you read Rachel Monroe’s “Savage Appetites,” and you see a true-crime conference with people walking around with fake blood splatter shirts. And you wonder: Why are women so fascinated when it feels so gross?
One aspect I wanted to play with is that Cassie wants to write a feminist true-crime book but is so accustomed to seeing women as victims that she can’t help at some point seeing Lore as a victim.
You quote Janet Malcolm in the book on the journalist-subject relationship as a “deliberately induced delusion.” Is Cassie lying to herself about her intentions? What about you, in writing your own page-turner about secret lives and murders?
I was trying to critique the genre while using some of its tropes, but I did ask if I am accomplishing that or if I’m just complicit in all the ways I’m critiquing. I don’t have a solid answer for that. I think it’s both. You are complicit too because you’re reading it.
New docs from HBO and Oxygen raise awareness about the disappearances of Black and Indigenous women, whose cases are often overlooked by media.
This story takes place on both sides of the border; the characters range from white to Mexican American to Mexican. There is plenty of untranslated Spanish, and Lore is clearly the most successful and assertive character. Yet their nationalities are not central to the story. Was that conscious?
I grew up in Laredo, a city that was 99% Mexican and Mexican American, but read one book by a Latina author until I was in college — Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” in seventh grade. It’s outrageous that a kid who always wrote stories and wanted to be a writer never saw that life reflected in fiction. So it was really important not to make identity an issue of trauma or oppression, to let each individual’s identity just seep through the story. I wanted Lore’s identity to center her without “othering” her and to flip the switch on what people might expect from a Mexican American woman.
We see Lore as duplicitous from the beginning, but we are initially on Cassie’s side. Then her fiancé, Duke, accuses her of being “ruthless.” Did you intend for both women to be seen as ruthless?
They’re both driven by desire, which is such a powerful force. Lore wants to be known, to be understood, which leads to this extra relationship; Cassie’s desire takes the form of ambition. And society tends to look at ambitious women as ruthless and cold, where ambitious men are seen as attractive. I don’t see female ambition as a bad thing. I want to read more about those women.
I saw Cassie as black and white in the way she constructs her justifications. It was intentional that she sees herself differently than the reader sees her. The trauma of her past informs her worldview in a way she doesn’t see.
How much do you compartmentalize in your own life?
We all do it. That was the seed of my fascination with these double-life stories, where people take compartmentalizing to extremes. Being a mother of young children during the pandemic offered less opportunity for compartmentalization — my world became very small.
So when my kids nap, I turn off the part of me that’s a mom and do my work without procrastinating. Writing a book with this larger-than-life character who lives a secret life offered that sense of escape for me during this period. You get to live that out in your mind as a writer.
Longtime New Yorker writer and author Janet Malcolm, who died Wednesday, was known for her challenging critiques on a wide range of subjects.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.