The Craigslist Murders

By Brenda Cullerton

Near the end of The Craigslist Murders our resourceful anti-hero Charlotte Wolfe, interior decorator, style consultant, and serial killer of Manhattan trophy wives, is having to deal with a number of crises. Chief among these, however, is not her dread at being apprehended for her crimes. In fact, the reader suspects that she might find the media circus of a trial self-validating by making her the target of the paparazzi (earlier she had smiled at one “papp” who had been “polite enough to snap her photo”). Nor is she particularly worried about her mother being taken to the hospital. Again, this might secretly please her. No, what terrifies Charlotte is a market correction leading to clients no longer spending thousands of dollars on flashy toilets and other overpriced furnishings. The next step might be a horrific social descent:

If her clients suddenly tightened their belts, Charlotte would be out of business. Between the anorexic five grand left in the Caymans account that Abe had opened for her and an exhausted credit line, she’d be bankrupt. Then what the hell would she do? Work as a cashier at D’Agostino? A sales clerk at Barnes & Noble? It was surreal, she thought, gazing out at the river traffic on the Hudson where nothing appeared to have changed.

Now this is scary stuff. And I don’t mean that in an ironic way: work defines our lives, and Charlotte probably has a healthy set of priorities. Her mother, after all, was a bitch to her as a child. And as for her victims . . .

Even if she understood it – the loneliness, the frustration in dealing with tyrannical husbands – there was something about the fury that roiled beneath the façade of such grotesquely over-privileged lives that Charlotte found loathsome. That poverty of the spirit – the purposelessness. It was a kind of moral anarchy. Once upon a time, Charlotte imagined that anger might have triggered social change, even revolution. Now all the rage had turned inward. . . .
. . . Charlotte was doing the devil’s work now, because nobody actually lived in the houses that she spent such obscene amounts of money and time decorating. They were designed solely to inspire envy, monstrous amounts of envy. The sterility within these camera-ready homes reflected little more than impotence – the same impotence that prompted the poor to kill.
So Charlotte was cleaning house, so to speak. She was purging herself of that same amorphous, soul-shriveling rage. She was delivering a message, making a point. Greed wasn’t good. And marrying money wasn’t a shortcut. It was a dead end.

It would be easy, but nonetheless accurate, to quickly describe The Craigslist Murders as American Psycho meets Sex in the City, with a distaff Patrick Bateman and updated brand names. This, in turn, may help explain the novel’s disjunctive medley of tones. It is an effective tale of suspense, but satire and social criticism rub shoulders awkwardly with overwrought psychodrama and a rather drippy romance (that has Charlotte melting in the skilful hands of a virile Russian oligarch). The resulting politics are also a bit unclear. If Charlotte is “delivering a message, making a point,” it is one that is compromised by the fact that she so keenly feels the envy she professionally cultivates, wants to marry money herself (and magically overcome its sterility), and is hungry for a taste of that “grotesquely over-privileged” life she so affects to despise.

It’s no wonder the revolution has been a long time coming. Thousands of personal assistants are dreaming, daily, not of killing their employers (as Charlotte supposes), but of marrying them. And the novel itself is a bourgeois form of art that encourages these kinds of daydreams.

If the politics seem muddled, the psychology is opaque. Charlotte sees murder as more than just personally cathartic (though it is all that):

She wasn’t in it for the money, or control or sex and drugs. She was a mercy killer. She was liberating these women; freeing them from their 40-million-dollar, 12,000-square-foot golden cages.

Not an argument you would want to make in front of a judge.

What, finally, is the message then? If you can’t beat them (with a poker, no less), join them? That one’s childhood, or a cruel and unjust economic environment, may excuse all?

There is a point in the book when Charlotte likens New York to Moscow, upsetting her Russian lover. Russian rage, he explains, is directed outward, at something foreign in capitalism itself that unites “the poor man and the rich man” (at least I think this is his point). In the U.S., whose oligarchs are hedge fund operators, such an attitude is tantamount to thoughtcrime. And so the “murderous, suffocating rage” of the people is, like the rage of the trophy wives, transferred, directed inward. Murder, since it cannot be vengeance, finds an outlet as liberation theology.

It’s a conclusion that Cullerton herself seems to want to avoid, slipping Charlotte off the hook by providing her with a repressed childhood trauma. Therapy is always preferable to revolution, even if it doesn’t change anything in the end.

Review first published online May 16, 2011.

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