Steve Harmon, the novel’s protagonist—and, at times, its narrator—is a sixteen-year-old African-American student from Harlem. At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that Steve is in prison awaiting trial for his alleged involvement in a murder. He writes in his diary to pass the time, chronicling his observations and anxieties while imprisoned. As a coping mechanism, Steve records his daily life in the format of a film script. Steve’s lawyer, Kathy O’Brien, coaches him on what to expect during his court hearing. Both Steve and James King, another man allegedly involved in the murder, have entered a plea bargain and must testify in court.
Steve and James are cross-examined by Sandra Petrocelli, the State Prosecutor. In her opening statement, she brands the accused men as “monsters” for the crimes they’ve committed. The use of the word “monster” references the novel’s title and its overall thematic significance. As the trial progresses, more witnesses are called to the stand. The trial proceedings are interrupted by a series of snippets that explore the relationship between Steve and James. Some of the accounts suggest that Steve and James barely know one another, while others show James alleging that Steve was the gunman in the robbery. Osvaldo Cruz, a Latino gang member also implicated in the crime, explains that he was pressured to participate in the robbery due to threats by Richard “Bobo” Evans.
Steve begins to think about his parents and their reactions to his arrest. He feels his father’s disappointment and his mother’s anxiety. When Osvaldo is called to testify, he explains that Steve was meant to serve as the lookout for a burglary. Though the individuals indicted in the crime had no intention of killing Mr. Nesbitt, the reader learns that Mr. Nesbitt’s own gun—pulled out in self-defense—was then turned on him. During Bobo’s testimony, he asserts that James King was the individual who actually pulled the trigger, subsequently killing Mr. Nesbitt. Bobo also claims that he “barely knows” Steve, but that he was supposed to be the “lookout” at the crime scene.
A few bystanders that have been called to the stand recount that they have witnessed only two people at the scene of the crime. These two people are allegedly Bobo and Osvaldo. Using these testimonies, Asa Briggs, the lawyer for James King, argues that neither Steve nor James can be placed at the crime scene. Kathy O’Brien, Steve’s lawyer, is doubtful of her client’s innocence. However, she advises Steve to refrain from writing anything incriminating in his journal in the event that it is seized by the court. In addition, she tells Steve that he should emphasize the distance between himself and James in order to ensure his own innocence. During Steve’s testimony, he explains that he has no recollection of his whereabouts during the day of the crime. He utilizes his oblivion as evidence that he is uninvolved in the crime.
O'Brien highlights the conflicting eyewitness accounts, thus pointing to their inconclusiveness. Though some common testimonies frame Steve as the lookout during the crime, O’Brien explains that this role is highly distinct from “murderer.” O’Brien enlists George Sawicki, the advisor of Steve’s high school film club, to serve as a character witness. Mr. Sawicki paints a humane and upright image of Steve to the jury. He emphasizes Steve’s excellence in film in order to point to the defendant’s alleged sensitivity and honesty. The lawyers give their closing speeches. The final verdict finds James King guilty of the murder of Mr. Nesbitt. Steve Harmon is acquitted.
Steve, elated by his acquittal, turns to hug O’Brien. However, his attorney coldly turns away. This reaction bothers Steve, and he ponders his lawyer’s impression of his own morality.
The novel jumps five months into the future. Steve’s life has, essentially, returned to normal. He continues journaling and filmmaking, which brings him happiness and purpose. However, his dad has moved away, thus creating distance within his family. Steve finds himself haunted by O’Brien’s callous reaction. Did O’Brien genuinely believe in Steve’s innocence? Or was she merely defending a “monster” because her job depended on it?