The Evil That Men Do:
Most serial killer books have men attacking and brutally murdering women, and more often than not they are sex workers. These women easy targets, the cops consider their work high risk and do not pursue the investigation with any zeal. The media, feeding on the public’s ghoulish interest in serial killers, forget all about the victims and build their narratives around the perpetrator.
Ivy Pochoda’s aptly titled These Women, looks at the small community of streetwalkers, bar girls, exotic dancers, cocktail waitresses – bundled under the label of sex workers—as individuals. In this seedy stretch of Los Angeles, many years ago, a serial killer had slashed and tossed thirteen women into dumps, like they were trash. With typical apathy, the male cops did a half-baked investigation and buried the files. Since the victims were hookers, there was no public outrage or sensational coverage in the media. The killer abruptly stopped, and just one woman, Feelia, survived, with a scar across her throat, and a hazy memory of the man who assaulted her on her day off, when she was just enjoying the breeze and a smoke. The cops did not even bother to join the dots to classify the murders of so many women as the work of a serial killer, in spite of the same modus operandi, because it would complicate their case files. Also, because the dead women were black or Latina and poor.
Dorian Williams, the mother of a mixed-race daughter, Lecia, who was killed, kept protesting that she was not a prostitute, but nobody paid heed to her. Years later, Dorian, who runs a fish shack and feeds the girls who solicit the neighbourhood, finds someone leaving dead birds outside her home and place of work, and the cops treat it as a joke. She is passed on as a prank to a troubled detective, Essie Perry, who was downgraded from Homicide to Vice after a tragedy for which she was wrongly blamed. Essie is also left to deal with Feelia, who claims she is being stalked by a white woman, and the male cops treat her as crazy.
The murders start up again after 15 years, and only Essie is sharp enough to make the connection between the old cases and the new. She actually listens to Dorian and Feelia and to her own gut instinct. The male cops look down their noses at the petite Essie and her theory, but when four women are found thrown in alleys with their throats slit and bags over their heads, they are forced to concede that there is a particularly vicious serial killer on the loose.
Pochoda portrays the women with sympathy—Julianna, a stripper, is a photographer with an eye for the stunning frame; she catches her friends and co-worker without any filters. In a better world, she could have been an artist, like Larry Sultan, to whose work homage is paid in this book. Her neighbour Marella, lives with a strict mother, but away from her control, she tries to build a career as a performance artiste and videographer.
Essie, who navigates a world of racism and prejudice in her own life, understands that the killer is an ordinary guy who lives in the neighbourhood. “You wouldn’t recognize him. Wouldn’t notice him. Not in a crowd. Not sitting on his own porch.” Because serial killers do not look like monsters.
The novel is non-judgmental about the women, and recognizes the dangers they have to face from predatory males—whether it is cat-calling from passing cars, or violence at work– but it cannot escape blaming the sexually free women from bringing out the “darkness” in a man provoked by their seductive manner.
Still, many of the characters in the book vehemently defend the women. As one says,”She was discarded 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 women picked off by the serial killer are anyway commodified by men, and once in the snare of sex work, drug addiction and petty crime, they have no way out. Ironically, the only one who escapes is Feelia, who manages to cheat death.
Marella’s art exhibition, conveys the discomfort that women feel just walking down the street, so how much worse it must be for the sex workers, who inadvertently make themselves targets of male perversity. “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.” She wants the audience to feel “that sensation of being followed down the street, being watched. Except more. Not just followed, caught.”
These Women is a murder mystery with a strong sense of time, place and understanding of the social hierarchies that hit women the most—particularly those who are forced to remain at the bottom of the economic ladder.
By Ivy Pochoda