Missing White Woman Syndrome: The Problem With Crime Fiction

I love a good murder mystery.

Unfortunately, I often end up reading terrible ones instead. That is my current situation: I’m halfway through CJ Box’s crime novel The Highway, which was inspired by the real-life Highway Serial Killings Initiative. I’ve read a lot of true crime books and articles (one of the best longform essays I’ve read is The Truck Stop Killer in GQ), so I was familiar with ViCAP and the initiative long before picking up Box’s book.

Here’s the thing: he’s done an awful, awful job of writing about this issue. Box falls headlong into a series of tropes which have been overused and exhausted in crime fiction. The hardboiled “old-school” detective who delivers drunken Batman rants like this:

The tough single mother up-and-coming woman cop who silently frets about her figure (as all women surely must) and has pressing worries like this:

Wow! As a leftist, I’m flattered at CJ Box’s piercing criticism of us. How dare this woman turn off all the lights! True red-blooded Americans must bathe themselves in a fluorescent glow at all times. And he sure got me right with that whole business line. My burning hatred of all forms of business is why I have chosen to live underground and farm mushrooms for sustenance. I’m actually writing this post on a shiitake right now.

No, Box, leftists don’t have some vague irrational hatred of “business”. Leftists despise the inequalities produced by a capitalist system which has historically thrown so many (especially Black and Indigenous people) under the bus when it comes to healthcare, equal pay, and housing. Your flat caricature of a shrill leftist woman is disingenuous and, frankly, misogynistic.

Ah, speaking of misogyny, we haven’t even touched on the rest of the female characters:

The eighteen-year-old who’s described in uncomfortably sexual ways, labelled a “slut” for being flirty, and depicted as a shallow weak little airhead.

Her sixteen-year-old sister who’s shown as “the responsible one”, but most of her inner dialogue is just internalised misogynistic thoughts about how dumb and slutty her sister is.

The serial killer’s unknowing mother, whom Box describes as monstrous for the crime of… being fat (side-note, Box really hates the idea of women being anything but stick-thin and smoking hot. He deliberately uses repulsive, mean language to describe women who dare to stray beyond these categories).

Box’s plot kicks in when the two teenagers go missing, kidnapped by a long-haul trucker who moonlights as a serial rapist and murderer. There are parts of the novel which are genuinely gripping – Box does a great job of highlight the disturbing thought patterns of his as-yet-nameless murderer – but the effect is dampened by the fact that everyone is so damn unlikeable. Even the heroes disgust me.

And then there’s the biggest crime in this novel, the part which makes me wonder why it was considered so remarkable that it got its own ABC show. To put it simply, The Highway is blindingly, implausibly white. Every single named main character, from the detectives to the missing girls to the kidnapped sex worker, is white. Why is this a problem? The Highway is set in Montana, where over one-fourth of missing people are Indigenous. The issue of Indigenous women and children being subject to assault, kidnapping, and murder is so extensive that a term for it has been coined the US and Canada: MMIW, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The disappearances rise sharply along highways, particularly those which cut through long desolate stretches of countryside: in British Columbia, the Prince Rupert Highway is known as the “Highway of Tears” due to the sheer number of women and children (mostly Indigenous) who have disappeared or been found dead alongside the road.

Only recently have police forces even acknowledged that MMIW is a problem; historically, Native women who have vanished were labelled as “runaways” and “prostitutes”, and dismissed by the authorities. This is how the serial killer Robert Pickton, who targeted sex workers in Vancouver (also mostly Indigenous women), was able to get away with his gruesome crimes for years. This is why nobody bothered to convict the men who killed Helen Betty Osborne for nearly two decades. The media and the police have long neglected cases involving Indigenous women, while lavishing attention on the disappearances of young wealthy white women.

CJ Box could have remedied this. CJ Box could have shone (or “shined”, as he puts it) a spotlight on the horrific issue of MMIW. He had the perfect setting and theme to do so – and yet, once again, The Highway falls into the pattern of Missing White Woman Syndrome, where all the women who are targeted are white. This does not reflect the reality we live in. This reinforces the idea that it’s only important to humanise and relay the stories of white women who are subject to crime. CJ Box could have broken the trend, but he didn’t.

Oh, and when his protagonists overhear overt racism, they don’t react. They are dead silent at moments like when another character refers to a “shithead Iraqi or Pakistani tourista” dying horribly. They don’t even bother to think that this kind of statement is gross. They have much more pressing concerns, like defending good white American churchgoers from evil leftists and planting evidence to frame people they just don’t like.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

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