‘Behold the Monster’ author Jillian Lauren exposes America’s most prolific serial killer


The Middle Eastern folk tale of Scheherazade unspools in the opening pages of “Some Girls,” Jillian Lauren’s 2010 New York Times bestselling memoir recounting her experiences as a sex worker in the harem of the Sultan of Brunei.

More than a decade after that book was published, Lauren herself became a kind of Scheherazade in “Behold the Monster: Confronting America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer,” out July 18. But instead of spinning tales to keep a murderous king from spilling the blood of innocent women, she lured another murderous despot – Sam Little, who confessed to murdering 93 women – into telling the stories of those he had already killed, in an effort to save their memory from police cold case files.

By her account, that effort – which over the course of almost five years took her everywhere from maximum security prisons to courthouses and the homes of victims’ bereaved relatives – just about broke her.

“I really never anticipated the emotional depths it would take me to,” Lauren said, speaking via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles.

Named an Amazon Best Book of July 2023, “Behold the Monster” is Lauren’s chronicle of her complicated relationship with Little, who, as she writes, is “someone who is human, but just barely.”

‘The criminal we allowed’

Inspired by the “nonfiction novel” techniques Truman Capote pioneered to write the true crime classic “In Cold Blood,” Lauren creates a cinematically styled mix of gritty reportage and intimate memoir for “Behold the Monster.” She says she aims not to elevate the criminal but to expose the societal inequities that allowed him to get away with his awful crimes for so long.

“Bobby Kennedy famously said every society gets the criminal it deserves, and the law enforcement it demands. As I say in the book, I’m not sure that Sam Little was the criminal we deserved, but it was certainly the criminal we allowed,” Lauren said.

Over more than six decades, Little preyed on marginalized women.

“His rap sheet was over a hundred pages long. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she said. “The former DA, Beth Silverman, who had prosecuted successfully four or five serial killers in Los Angeles said, ‘I’ve never seen a rap sheet like this.’ It was stunning. And the first time I saw it, I cried. I was like, wait, it’s not just that he was arrested again and again and again and again – not just for petty theft, which he was – but he was arrested for assault and murder.”

There was often a lack of physical evidence, but more than that, juries considered his victims and the eyewitnesses to his crimes not credible.

“It was a criminologist named Steven Egger who came up with the idea that we value our homicides differently based on people’s class. In the case of Sam’s victims specifically, he cherry-picked his victims for being clearly marginalized. People of color, addicted, often prostitutes – people who would be considered unreliable even if they lived. And that was exactly what happened.”

From fiction and memoir to true crime

Recasting herself as a true crime maven initially seemed to me like an unlikely move for Lauren (who, full disclosure, I knew from when our children shared some playdates as preschoolers). Gruesome murder wasn’t the literary terrain she covered: In addition to her breakout memoir, “Some Girls,” her previous books include the contemporary novel “Pretty” and a memoir, “Everything You Ever Wanted,” about the journey she and her husband, Weezer bass player Scott Shriner, went on in adopting a child with special needs from Ethiopia.

But Lauren contends that if you scratch the surface, everything connects.

“I am a bit of a wild child, and plagued with insatiable curiosity. I think in all my work you can see that I’m looking at fringe elements of society, exploring the underbelly and seeing how that reflects upon us as a whole. I think that there are these commonalities, though my books do seem so different,” she said.

The journey to “Behold the Monster” began innocently enough, with an attempt to write a mystery novel.

“I’ve always loved mysteries. I’ve been a true crime fanatic since I was nine years old. I had read every Agatha Christie book by the time I was 12. And, it just occurred to me that, um, why am I not writing a mystery? I love them. When I read to impress, I’ll go read some Dostoyevsky. When I read for myself, I’m going to grab a Michael Connelly off the shelf,” she said. (In fact, Connelly wrote the foreword to “Behold the Monster.”)

Research for that mystery novel led her to an interview with famed LAPD homicide detective Mitzi Roberts about historic LA crimes including the Black Dahlia, for which Roberts is the official custodian. “Mitzi’s passion is cold cases,” Lauren explained.

Toward the tail end of their interview, Roberts mentioned that one of her greatest professional coups was convicting an under-reported serial killer by the name of Samuel Little, who she had brought to justice in 2014.

“I was like, ‘What?’ My antennas went up. I told her, ‘You buried the lede!’ and she said, ‘I’m not the one asking the questions,’” Lauren said with a laugh.

“When Mitzi said to me, ‘I believe he was responsible for many more deaths across the country,’ and that there weren’t resources in local law enforcement to find out more, that sank like a stone in my gut,” said Lauren. “Who knows how many families out there will never have answers? How many women out there will remain forever without their names, Jane Does? Due to my own history of domestic violence, some sex work, and a tough childhood, while it wasn’t so much I could have been one of these women, it was more that I felt a sense of fury at the injustice. I felt motivated by them.”

And, frankly, from a writer’s perspective, Lauren sensed that she just might have struck literary gold.

“It started more as, Wow, here’s a good story, a career-maker of a story. Here’s an underreported serial killer. And, you know, it’s one of my superpowers, to crack anyone. I’m a good conversationalist.”

She quickly went down a rabbit hole to learn everything she could about Little, eventually scoring the first of many interviews with the imprisoned killer.

“Be careful what you ask for in a sense, you know? I had been watching my true crime documentaries for years and years, late at night. I always would sit there with my popcorn, watch those documentaries and say ‘Ask him this’ and ‘Ask him this.” I was finally going to get to do it,” she said.

“It seemed like a wild and audacious thing to try. And then when it succeeded – and this is sort of the story of my life – I said, now what do I do? I mean, really, now he’s confessing, what do I do? It pivoted my entire life. I didn’t think it would turn into my life’s passion. I mean, what grabbed me was the injustice. What kept me in it was this really complicated, and interesting, and destructive, relationship with a pernicious, vicious killer.”

Hurdle after hurdle

Writing a book is hard enough, but in the midst of her research, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger got wind of Lauren’s project and approached her to do a series about her work to track down all of Little’s victims. The result was the 2021 Starz series, “Confronting a Serial Killer.”

And let’s not forget, there was that small complication of a pandemic.

“I mean, my family was falling apart. I had a documentary crew in my house for weeks. That’s in the middle of Covid. We were all stuck. It was awful…you know, there was so much hypervigilance for so long.”

Did she think about giving up? Lauren shakes her head no.

“I had to make it work. I had real contracts to fulfill. I have a performing musician for a husband, which means he didn’t have work for two years. And I can’t leave the house to keep getting the stories [for the book]. And waking up at four in the morning to set up homeschool…I just feel fundamentally changed by the process of that time.”

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