Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a 1999 novel about Steve Harmon, a sixteen-year-old boy on trial for his alleged complicity in a robbery-turned-murder.
Steve is accused of participating in a deadly drugstore robbery. While in prison awaiting trial, he decides to document his experience as a screenplay.
The trial is heated, but the evidence indicates that Steve was at worst a nonviolent lookout and at best entirely uninvolved and innocent.
- Though Steve is cleared of all charges, his lawyer seems to doubt his innocence, leading him to question the prosecution's characterization of him as a "monster."
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Monster follows the trial of sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon from Monday, July 6th, to Tuesday, July 14th, with the final chapter covering the verdict on Friday, July 17th. There is a short prologue in which Steve reflects on life in prison, which feels unreal to him. It seems like a film, but without the plot or any other such structure. He decides to write a screenplay based on his prison experience and gives it the title Monster, which is what the prosecutor called him during his trial. The rest of the novel takes the form of this screenplay.
On Monday, Steve describes his journey to the courthouse from the Manhattan Detention Center. He employs the language of cinema, noting the camera angles, cuts, and other technical details of the scene. At the courthouse, Steve’s lawyer, Kathy O’Brien, explains that the prosecutor, Sandra Petrocelli, is seeking the death penalty against him for murder, claiming that he acted as a lookout during a drugstore robbery in which Mr. Nesbitt, the owner of the store, was shot. Although the robbery and the shooting were actually carried out by two older men, James King and Bobo Evans, Steve will also be legally culpable of murder if found guilty. Evidence is adduced that connects King and Evans to the murder, though the witness is a criminal who has been promised a reduced sentence for testifying. Steve listens to some of it while his mind occasionally flashes back to his childhood, which was full of violence despite his own attempts to avoid trouble.
On Tuesday, there is another witness who gives similar testimony to the first, and for the same reason: he is a career criminal who has been promised a reduced sentence if he testifies. Asa Briggs, the lawyer representing James King, points to this incentive and questions the objectivity and truthfulness of his account. In the detention center, both before and after the trial, Steve hears the sounds of fighting, and at night he hears a gang-rape taking place.
On Wednesday morning, Steve begins the day thinking about how even shoelaces and belts are taken away from prison inmates, since suicide is a common—and understandable—occurrence in these circumstances. In court, the testimony comes from the investigating officer, Detective Karyl. Steve’s mind drifts back to the night Karyl questioned him. The detective immediately assumed Steve was guilty because he was a young Black man, and Kathy O’Brien is concerned that the jury will share this prejudice and believe the detective, despite the fact that his investigation has been slipshod. Osvaldo Cruz, who has also been accused of taking part in the robbery, testifies that he did so only when threatened by Bobo Evans.
On Thursday, the questioning of Cruz continues. Although he has been charged with keeping a lookout for the robbers, the same crime as Steve, he has subsequently been acquitted in exchange for his testimony, partly because of his youth (he is fourteen). However, Cruz is also a dangerous gang member with a history of violence and intimidation, which undercuts his claim to have been coerced. During this day, Steve becomes increasingly concerned that others see him as a monster, including his lawyer, the jury, and even his father, who comes to visit him.
On Friday, four witnesses take the stand, including the medical examiner, who testifies that the bullet which killed Mr. Nesbitt caused extensive internal bleeding, meaning that he died by drowning in his own blood. Steve is horrified by this, but it does not seem to affect the rest of the court much. James King, in particular, appears bored and...
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On Saturday, the court is in recess and Steve is in the detention center all day. He thinks of what O’Brien has told him about the likelihood of his spending decades in prison and wonders whether he would be able to endure this, especially given what he has heard of the rape and physical injury that are common in prison life. He ruminates on the deep unfairness of his having to go through this ordeal because he happened to be in the neighborhood of the drugstore where Mr. Nesbitt was killed. His mother visits him in prison and gives him a Bible, but she is unable to comfort him. She says she knows he is innocent, but Steve is unsure whether to believe her.
On Sunday morning, Steve goes to the prison church service, but a fight breaks out and the inmates are all put on lockdown. After it ends, Steve’s parents visit. Their attempts to cheer him up are futile, and he thinks that they are already preparing for the worst and mourning him as if he were dead.
On Monday, Petrocelli questions a witness who says that she saw James King arguing with Mr. Nesbitt in the drugstore, but King’s lawyer casts doubt on her identification, and she has to admit to some uncertainty. Bobo Evans, who, like several other witnesses, has made a plea bargain, testifies next. He says that King pointed out Steve as their lookout and that, after Steve left the drugstore, he and King began fighting with Mr. Nesbitt. When Nesbitt pulled a gun, King managed to take it from him and shoot him with it, after which they both fled with money and cigarettes. In O’Brien’s cross-examination, Evans admits that he did not speak to Steve himself and only has King’s word for his involvement.
On Tuesday, Steve himself takes the stand. Having realized that the impression he makes is more important than telling the truth (which so many other witnesses have not done), he says that he did not go into the drugstore on the day in question. Mr. Sawicki, the film teacher from Steve’s school, appears as a character witness, testifying that Steve is a decent person whose main interest is in filmmaking. The case concludes, and Steve returns to the detention center to await the verdict.
The previous chapters have all taken place on consecutive days, but the final chapter occurs on Friday, July 17th, when Steve returns to court for the verdict. The jury finds James King guilty, and he is placed in handcuffs and led from the courtroom. They find Steve not guilty. He attempts to hug Kathy O’Brien, but she turns away, leaving Steve with arms outstretched. The final cinematic image is of Steve silhouetted in this posture, looking like “one of the pictures they use for psychological testing, or some strange beast, a monster.”
The screenplay ends here. A postscript written five months later reveals that Steve is still making films, though he is distant from his parents and wonders obsessively what caused O'Brien to turn away from him.
Last Updated June 22, 2023.
Author: Walter Dean Myers (1937–2014)
First published: 1999
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Realism
Time of plot: Late 1990s
Locale: New York City
Steve Harmon, a skinny sixteen-year-old African American boy
Kathy O'Brien, Steve's freckled, red-haired defense attorney
James King, a twenty-three-year-old thug
Richard “Bobo” Evans, a twenty-two-year-old felon
Osvaldo Cruz, a fourteen-year-old Hispanic boy bearing tattoos of the Diablos gang
Asa Briggs, the blue-eyed, white-haired defense attorney for James King
Young Steve Harmon is in big trouble. He languishes in Cell Block D of the Manhattan Detention Center awaiting trial. Though he has consistently protested his innocence, Steve has been implicated as one of several people who participated in the robbery of a Harlem drugstore just before last Christmas. The crime went horribly wrong when the store owner, Mr. Nesbitt, a middle-aged man from the West Indies, pulled out a gun to defend his property and was fatally shot during a struggle for the gun.
Now it is July of the following year. Two of the individuals involved in the robbery—Richard “Bobo” Evans and Osvaldo Cruz—have both confessed and made plea bargain deals for lesser sentences in exchange for naming the others who were involved in the crime. Steve and James King, though they have separate defense counsels, are to be tried simultaneously for felony murder. They both face potential death sentences or lengthy prison terms without the possibility of parole if found guilty.
As the trial progresses over the course of two weeks, the prosecution, under the direction of Sandra Petrocelli, presents a parade of witnesses who detail the crime and its aftermath. A store employee recounts finding Nesbitt's body after returning from lunch. A man incarcerated at Riker's Island tells of a conversation he had with another prisoner who had bought cartons of cigarettes taken during the robbery. A store customer recalls seeing James King arguing with Mr. Nesbitt. Police detectives recall their investigation of the crime. Osvaldo Cruz and Richard “Bobo” Evans testify against Harmon and King. Though their respective attorneys mount a vigorous defense that demonstrates Cruz is a liar and not as meek as he appears on the stand and that Evans is a callous, habitual criminal who would do anything to help himself, the outcome seems bleak for the two defendants when the prosecution rests. Steve feels certain they are losing the case, and his attorney confirms she is worried about what the final result will be.
Desperate to separate her client from the fate of King, who appears certain to be convicted despite the fact that most evidence presented has been circumstantial and hearsay, attorney O'Brien puts Steve on the stand. Steve denies acting as lookout for the store robbery—the role Cruz and Evans claimed he played—or having any involvement whatsoever in the crime. Under cross-examination by the prosecutor, Steve maintains that he barely knew King, Evans, or Cruz and that he was only in the vicinity of the store because he was scouting locations for a film about the neighborhood for a school project. To reinforce the impression that Steve is an innocent victim of the judicial system, O'Brien calls as a character witness Mr. Sawicki, Steve's film teacher, who testifies that his student is bright, talented, and honest.
After closing arguments and jury instructions, James and Steve are kept in a holding cell with guards; it is the first time they have spoken to one another since a casual conversation on a neighborhood stoop many months earlier. James, who has been through the court system before, is fatalistic, while Steve is scared out of his wits about what will happen to him.
The structure of Monster adds to the reading enjoyment. Protagonist Steve Harmon, self-described from the beginning as an aspiring filmmaker, presents his experience as though it were a script, with Steve as the screenwriter, producer, director, and star. The bulk of the story advances in straightforward, linear fashion. The script realistically depicts a typical felony trial, in which there are no “Perry Mason moments” of sudden, surprising revelations or forced confessions. Readers are forced to serve as surrogate jurors, to weigh the testimony and evidence, and to judge for themselves what is true or false and who is innocent or guilty. The script is periodically enhanced with cinematic techniques—montages, cuts, dissolves, and other prospective camera movements—for dramatic impact. Flashbacks show Steve's brief encounters with the other characters and moments spent in the past with family members, demonstrating the love of Steve's caring parents and his admiring younger brother Jerry, who will all be changed by the traumatic experience of Steve's arrest and trial. Scenes are capped with Steve's notes detailing his impressions, feelings, doubts, and fears concerning the particular day's events.
In addition to delineating a crime, its aftereffects, and the course of meting out punishment, Monster also deals with a number of larger social issues. The plight of young inner-city men of color—plagued by high rates of unemployment and few prospects for the future—is starkly portrayed. The perpetrators purposely chose Mr. Nesbitt as their target because he was an immigrant and they knew the authorities would be less zealous in their investigation than if the victim had been white. The penal system is shown as jungle-like, where the weak are brutalized. The inequality of the judicial system is especially taken to task. There is considerable truth in what O'Brien tells Steve during a conference: despite the admonition that suspects are innocent until proven guilty, half of the jury members believe from the start that Steve committed the crime simply because he is young, Black, and on trial.
Because of the novel's multiple strengths in storytelling, Monster won the inaugural Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and was named a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2000.
- Gómez, Hannah. “On Walter Dean Myers.” Hub. YALSA, 13 July 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2015. <http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2014/07/13/on-walter-dean-myers/>.
- Rev. of Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. Kirkus. Kirkus, 1 May 1999. Web. 16 Oct. 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/walter-dean-myers/monster-myers/>.
- Rev. of Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.