Book Review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
By Angie BarryOctober 20, 2020
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo is a feminist serial killer story and dynamic psychological thriller about two women who give bad men exactly what they deserve.
Dr. Scarlett Clark isn’t a typical English professor. When she’s not writing lesson plans or working on fellowship applications, she’s an avid hunter who spends hours stalking her prey. Securing tenure isn’t nearly as important to her as her all-consuming hobby.
But Scarlett is not hunting bucks or birds. No, her preferred prey is awful men: rapists, perverts, abusers, dangerous narcissists. Scarlett studies them, meticulously plots their demise, and then ensures they can never harm another woman ever again.
“Why—” he starts, but his throat is too constricted to speak.
I put the phone in his twitching hand and lean over him, my body casting his in shadow.
“Megan Foster,” I say.
Tyler’s eyes widen — and this, this is my favorite part. The abject terror that takes over their faces. That’s how I know they’re finally seeing me, realizing what I truly am.
I imagine what Tyler might say, if he were still capable of forming words. It wasn’t just me—that’s probably where he’d start. He wasn’t the only one who held Megan down on that filthy frat house mattress.
He didn’t have bruises and scratches on his arms afterwards, like his teammate Devin Caldwell did. But the police didn’t do a damn thing to Devin Caldwell either. They claimed there wasn’t enough proof.
For me, what Megan said was more than enough proof. True justice would have been bolting the fraternity house doors and setting the whole place on fire, burning every one of those boys in their beds. But I can’t kill them all, not unless I want to get caught. I’ve spent sixteen years murdering men who deserve it, and I’m not about to get sloppy now.
So I made the logical compromise: pick one man and make an example of him.
But just as Scarlett turns her killer focus on a target closer and more personal than ever, Gorman University creates a task force to look into the spate of sudden deaths on campus. The head of the group, Dr. Mina Pierce, is an exceedingly clever—and very observant—woman. So Scarlett insinuates herself into the project to carefully turn the spotlight away from her bloody work.
In a parallel plot, freshman Carly Schiller arrives at Gorman. Having escaped from a suffocating, emotionally abusive household, all she wants is to keep her head down and survive college.
Enter Allison Hadley, Carly’s roommate, a vivacious theater major who quickly sweeps the quiet girl into a fierce friendship. Carly’s never truly had a friend before, so when Allison is assaulted at a party, she becomes obsessed with punishing the attacker and avenging her friend.
“But what if—” I sputter. “I mean, if I hadn’t been there, he might have—”
“But you were there.” The dean folds her hands on the desk. “And nothing really happened. Did it?”
I expect Allison to be as appalled as I am by this response, but instead she looks like she’s in genuine shock. Her lips are slightly parted, her eyes unfocused, the blood drained from her face. I’m losing her again.
“You’re not injured,” the dean continues, ticking off points on her French-manicured fingers. “You don’t have to worry about STDs or pregnancy.”
“He drugged her,” I say. “She was barely conscious, and he was touching her. That’s—”
“Yes, well.” The dean’s smile stiffens. “Maybe now you’ll both think twice before accepting drinks from boys you don’t know.”
The dual story of Scarlett and Carly plays out in alternating chapters, and the deeper we sink into their experiences, the more similarities emerge—and the unsettling fact that misogynistic violence is an ever-repeating cycle that may only be broken by violence in kind.
Layne Fargo’s They Never Learn isn’t chilling. No, it’s a sparking fuse leading to an explosion of feminist rage. This is a thriller that will prove disturbingly cathartic for female readers; too many moments will ring a familiar note for far too many. Even if you’ve never tweeted #MeToo, you know someone who has.
And Fargo never tempers that rage or darkness. This is a novel that could only be written by a woman, steeped in all of the outrage, disgust, and repressed screams of the wronged. There’s plenty here to horrify—triggers abound—but the ultimate theme is of women reclaiming their power. Former victims reassert their agency and own their narratives, giving a defiant, bloody middle finger to the status quo and calling out the hypocrisies and double standards that consistently favor men over women.
We root for Scarlett to escape the police and carry on her brutal work not just because she’s the primary protagonist but because in a world that consistently turns a blind eye to women’s suffering—offering nothing beyond a shrug, a sneer, or outright victim-blaming—what she does feels like divine justice. She’s the inevitable outcome of a broken system. If the guilty were properly punished in a court of law, if women could actually escape the violence that permeates every aspect of their lives, Scarlett Clark wouldn’t have to be a serial killer avenging angel.
And though Scarlett is, by her own admission, a monster, she’s not a heartless or unsympathetic one. She still cares deeply about others around her. She’s protective of her students, the decent professors she works alongside, and the victims she’s avenging. She’d willingly sacrifice herself for anyone worthy of the cost. Ultimately, she’s stopping other monsters; if we can cheer for Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan, we can absolutely stand behind Dr. Scarlett Clark.
Fargo’s prose is propulsive, her short chapters urging us into a breakneck pace. They Never Learn isn’t so much a book as it is an experience, darkly hypnotic and intensely compulsive. This is a psychological thriller of the highest order, a story that seeps into your thoughts like blood through floorboards. If you read this at night, be prepared to sleep uneasily—or not at all.