The One Sentence Summary: A detective investigates a child murder in the same small town outside Dublin where, in his childhood, two friends disappear...moreThe One Sentence Summary: A detective investigates a child murder in the same small town outside Dublin where, in his childhood, two friends disappeared while he played in the wood with them, an event of which he had repressed all memory.
The Meat and Potatoes: In the summer of 1984, Detective Rob Ryan was found in the woods abutting his property development, terrified, with a large quantity of blood on his clothing. The two friends that he had been playing with that evening were never seen again. Years later Detective Ryan is called to investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl on an archaeological dig site just outside the recently cleared edge of that same wood. The apparently motiveless killing takes Ryan, his partner, and his squad around the small Dublin suburb of Knocknaree and back. Could the cases be related? What was the likelihood of two different child killers operating in a place as small as Knocknaree, even separated by twenty years? As the investigation continues and Ryan explores any possible connections to the old case, long repressed memories of that summer begin to surface. The mystery of the events of long ago begin to weigh on him in a way they never had before, threatening to claim his friendships, his partnership, and his career, as casualties.
In The Woods is a first person, past tense story communicated by Detective Rob Ryan, an admittedly unreliable narrator (“What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”), at some distant time in the future. Although the story has plenty of intrigue in itself, the novel is heavily character-based, and it is the reader’s affinity for and curiosity regarding the lives of these characters that drives the story forward. Detective Rob Ryan is not the typical world-wearied Detective that we’re used to seeing in crime novels (at least not at the beginning). He is a hardworking person who is generally comfortable, even happy, with his lot in life, despite the mystery in his past. Ryan’s partner is the enigmatic Detective Cassie Maddox, a young, laid-back, tomboyish female detective with whom he shares a sibling-like relationship. Detective Sam O’Neill, a genuinely nice and idealistic lad (bordering on naïve) rounds off the trio working on the child murder. The main characters are all very three-dimensional, and negative as well as positive characteristics abound. Because the characters and their relationships are so realistic, the novel has powerful emotional affect. When Ryan’s intruding memories begin to affect his life and his relationship with his partner starts to unravel, I personally was so drawn in that I finished the remainder of the book (almost two-hundred pages) in a single sitting.
The plotting of In The Woods is masterfully done. In a few pages in the prologue we are given background information on the original mystery, the disappearance of the children in Ryan’s childhood. In just a few paragraphs the scene is set and the close relationship between these young characters is cemented. Nothing sinister is described in these pages, although the final paragraph contains an ominous hint as to their final fate:
These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer. This August will not ask them to find hidden reserves of strength and courage as they confront the complexity of the adult world and come away sadder and wiser and bonded for life. This summer has other requirements for them.
The actual details of this first crime are given incrementally. Ryan provides a clinical description from the case file, which he reads when he first becomes a detective; in the course of interviews regarding the child murder, the 1984 case is explored and we’re given additional details from the community residents; and as Ryan spends more time in the area, repressed memories begin to surface. This old case shares roughly equal time in the narrative with the “present day” case, and the details are interwoven through the more traditional, chronological child murder investigation.
The story is set in Ireland, where the author has lived since 1990, and her knowledge of the area and local culture is very apparent. Local dialect is sprinkled throughout (use of the verb “amn’t,” adjectives such as “bowsie,” and phrasing including “after” plus a continuous verb—“It’s only terrible what’s after happening”), adding a further level of realism to the novel.
The Praiseworthy: There are so many things I could describe in this section, from the grand to the mundane, but I’ll try to keep my analysis short. What makes this novel a future classic in my mind is the beauty and eloquence of the writing, which in my opinion transcends the crime genre and elevates this novel to the level of literary fiction. A few instances where the writing took my breath away include:
Out of absolute nowhere I felt a sudden sweet shot of joy . . . It was my partner bracing herself on her hands as she slid fluidly off the desk, it was the neat practised movement of flipping my notebook shut one-handed, it was my superintendent wriggling into his suit jacket and covertly checking his shoulders for dandruff, it was the garishly lit office with a stack of marker-labelled case files sagging in the corner and evening rubbing up against the window. It was the realisation, all over again, that this was real and it was my life.*
She just sat there quietly, her thumb moving regularly on my shoulder, while I cried. Not for those three children, I can’t claim that, but for the unbridgeable distance that lay between them and me: for the millions of miles, and the planets separating at dizzying speed. For how much we had to lose. We had been so small, so recklessly sure that together we could defy all the dark and complicated threats of the adult world, run straight through them like a game of Red Rover, laughing and away.
This was our last and greatest dance together, danced in a tiny interview room with darkness outside and rain falling soft and relentless on the roof, for no audience but the doomed and the dead.
I thought . . . of all those who hold life so light, or the stakes so dear, that they can walk steady and open-eyed to meet that thing that will take or transform their lives and whose high cold criteria are far beyond our understanding.
Also, what’s not said in this novel is a triumph in itself. The author is a master of the ellipses; French gives us the most important information in dialogue, and knows when to break and jump to the next scene. Her transitions are flawless with, in many cases, an enviable simplicity (for example: “Sam showed up at my apartment on Monday evening, late, around ten.”). Through this artful juggling of dialogue, narration, break, and summary, the reader is given all the important information without being bogged down in trivial detail or having the pace of the novel compromised.
The last praiseworthy aspect of In The Woods that I will discuss is French’s use of the present continuous tense for injection of invading memories. Small interruptions (in italics) are sprinkled throughout the novel, especially in the early stages of the child murder investigation when Ryan is beginning to recall details from the 1984 incident: “trainer heels dug into the earth of the bank, leaf-shadows dappling a red t-shirt, fishing-rods of branches and string, slapping at midges: Shut up! You’ll scare the fish!—“ French also uses this device to introduce more significant intrusions of memory. In one scene, Ryan is spending a night in a clearing in the woods, attempting to recover any memories that may be useful in the child murder case. The narration describes him climbing into the sleeping bag and leaning against the tree, and then abruptly jumps: “Peter whirling around on the castle wall and shooting out a hand to freeze me and Jamie on either side: ‘What’s that?’” In the next paragraph, she picks up the memory with the past simple tense: “We had been outside all day. . . .” Later in that scene, as the memories become interspersed with a panic in the present tense of the narrative, the present continuous is used to distinguish the description of the events in 1984 from the events in the narrative’s present:
Down by the river. Skidding to a stop; willow branches swaying and the water firing off splinters of light like a million tiny mirrors, blinding, dizzying. Eyes, golden and fringed like an owl. (Memories of the past)
The next paragraph:
I ran. I scrabbled out of the clutching sleeping-bag and threw myself into the wood, away from the clearing. (Actions in the narrative’s present)
Although it seems incongruous to use the present tense to describe events in the distant past, French’s choice crafts a narrative that flows freely from the past to the present and back, without confusing the reader.
The Shortcomings: (view spoiler)[ The original mystery of what happened to the children in 1984 is never resolved. On the whole I did not see this decision as a failing as unsolved cases are a reality in law enforcement, but this is somewhat unusual for the genre and could be unsatisfying to the reader since so much of the novel is spent exploring the details of this old crime. Personally, this choice did not affect my reading of the novel. (hide spoiler)]
The Verdict: I would recommend In The Woods to readers who enjoy crime and appreciate beautiful and eloquent writing in addition to well-constructed narrative. Also, a sprinkling of 90s pop-culture references add an extra dimension for those who came of age in that decade.
*practised, levelled, and realisation are presented in their British spellings as I pulled the quote from the British edition of the novel. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The One Sentence Summary: A young boy writes to an imprisoned serial killer, asking for help to find the body of his uncle, whose disappearance at age...moreThe One Sentence Summary: A young boy writes to an imprisoned serial killer, asking for help to find the body of his uncle, whose disappearance at age eleven sent the whole family awry.
The Meat and Potatoes: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb has a troubled home life. His father left when he was young; his Nan stands at the window all day waiting for her son Billy, who disappeared in childhood; and Steven’s mother, upset over being ignored after the disappearance of her brother, takes out her frustrations on her children with the same coldness and bitterness that her mother showed her. Steven thinks that if he can just find the bones of his Uncle Billy, his whole family would be fixed. After years of aimlessly digging holes where Arnold Avery, Billy’s suspected killer, had buried his other victims, he writes to the killer in prison. “I am looking for WP. Can you help me?” This simple request opens the door, and Steven soon finds out that, much worse than obsessing over a serial killer, is the serial killer obsessing over you.
Blacklands is both a crime novel and an exploration into the after-effects of a violent crime on the family left behind. Bauer spends as much time delving into the psychological state of the family as she does setting up the ultimate showdown between Steven and the killer. Even though it is written in the third person omniscient POV, Bauer does a fantastic job of putting us in the heads of even minor characters.
Blacklands is set in Exmoor, England, a small rural village surrounded by wild moors, and the small-town, isolated feel really pervades the story. Bauer’s descriptions are fantastic, and you can really see, smell, and feel the landscape of the moor: the spicy scents, the prickly vegetation, the thick brambles, and the cool sea mist.
Bauer also incorporates images into the novel, which is fairly unique to the genre. Rather than just presenting the typed text of Steven’s letters to Avery we are given an image: simple notebook paper with handwriting that could either be taken as the carefully crafted print of a child, or an adult in a rush. In seeing Steven’s actual writing we get more of a feel for his character.
The Praiseworthy: Bauer’s scenes are very well thought-out and plotted. Each of them pulls its weight, often accomplishing several different objectives at once. For example, towards the beginning of the novel we are told about Steven repairing his Nan’s shopping trolley, substituting all-terrain wheels from a buggy for the rickety metal wheels. This scene leads into a reflection which ends up underscoring the whole novel (“Decide what you want and then work out how to get it”), as well as setting up subtle indicators of his Nan’s love for him, despite her coldness (she proudly shows off the heavy-duty wheels to friends and walks with it even when not shopping). Another great example of a scene that accomplishes several things at once is midway through the novel when the guards at Avery’s prison are opening the inmates’ correspondence and vetting the photographs. This scene depicts the photo of Exmoor sent by Steven slipping through, despite Avery’s therapist’s understanding that the sight of Avery’s old burial ground would be unhealthily exciting to him. At the same time, the scene shows the reader that the guards have been confiscating nude photos of another prisoner’s attractive wife, which (view spoiler)[sets up a physical confrontation between this prisoner and a guard, facilitating Avery’s escape. (hide spoiler)]
The bulk of Blacklands is what I would characterize as good writing, but there are several places where Bauer’s writing really stands out. As Steven becomes more and more obsessed with the serial killer, a photograph he sees in school of our solar system within the vast Milky Way galaxy provides an interesting opportunity to delve further into the killer’s psyche:
No wonder Arnold Avery did what he did! Why shouldn’t he? Wasn’t it he, Steven Lamb, who was the fool for caring what had happened to a single one of those microbes on a dot inside a speck of light? What was everyone getting so hot under the microbial collar about? It was Avery who saw the bigger picture; Avery who knew that the true value of human life was precisely nothing. That taking it was the same as not taking it; that conscience was just a self-imposed bar to pleasure; that suffering was so transitory that a million children might be tortured and killed in the merest blink of a cosmic eye.
And he revisits this thought when he gets lost in a sea mist on the moor:
Steven felt himself shrinking under its blind vastness. The image of the galaxy came back to him. He was an atom on a microbe on a speck on a mote on a pinprick in the middle of nowhere.
The revelations aren’t restricted to Steven’s character; the killer Avery also has some very well-crafted moments of his own:
Many years ago he had played poker. He hadn’t known what he was doing really and was nervous of losing and making a fool of himself. But it was only when he picked up a pair of aces and saw another two drop on the table that he’d started to shake. That was how he knew that the trembling that now coursed through his hands, over his shoulders and across his cheeks to his lips was a god thing. He held an unbeatable hand.
The Shortcomings: I only found one significant problem with Blacklands: Bauer has a tendency to overuse (and occasionally improperly use) dashes. At first this was just something I noticed, but as I continued through the novel it became distracting, then annoying, and then aggravating. Bauer often uses a dash when a simple comma will do: “Something chemical had been released in Avery’s brain—something that sharpened his lust and dulled his more sensible senses.” She also employs dashes in places where they are simply not necessary and could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence: “It was slow going and painful and—by the time he reached the stile that led him through the backs of the houses to the road—both his socks had holes in them.” She uses dashes to offset phrases that do not require the added emphasis of the dash over the comma: “He didn’t want or need their friendship but—even after eighteen years—he was still genuinely uncertain as to why some killers got respect in prison while he was vilified.” And sometimes she makes several of these errors at once; consider this sentence which contains three dashes: “The dozen guards—who just moments before—had been picking their noses in boredom, ran to help, batons flailing—like a poorly trained pub football team losing its shape because they were all chasing the ball.” Amazingly, on the page that this sentence appears (a page containing only 223 words) there were nine dashes total. Granted, not everyone will be as distracted by or even notice the abuse of dashes like I did, but it’s the kind of thing I would have expected an intrepid editor to fix.
The Verdict: I would recommend Blacklands to readers who enjoy crime novels with unique, engaging settings and a strong psychological aspect. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The One Sentence Summary: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime af...moreThe One Sentence Summary: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime after doubts about her brother’s guilt begin to surface.
The Meat and Potatoes: When Libby Day was seven, her mother and two sisters were killed in their rural Kansas farmhouse, their blood used to paint satanic symbols on the walls. Ben Day, Libby’s moody fifteen-year-old brother, was convicted of the murders, largely on the basis of Libby’s testimony. Now thirty years later, the charity fund that she has been living off is nearly gone and Libby can’t bear the thought of getting a job. She’s contacted by Lyle Wirth, a young man who is president of the “Kill Club”—a group of true crime fanatics who are obsessed with finding the truth about the “Farmhouse Satan Sacrifices”—and he pays Libby to do some freelance investigating into the murders of her family. Though all her life she’s believed Ben was the culprit, Libby uncovers some inconsistencies that make her as hungry for the truth as the members of the strange club she’s become involved with.
Dark Places is written in the past tense, using first person point of view for the chapters narrated by Libby, and third person for those narrated by other characters. The story opens on Libby in the present day as she begins to investigate the murders of her family. Libby’s present day account alternates with chapters through the eyes of other characters, on the day of the murders. This combination of present and past gives us an overall picture of the crime, bit by bit. Evidence is referenced in the present chapters and then we are able to see exactly how the events unfolded, from the eyes of the characters. For example, we are told early on that both the axe and the shotgun used to murder Patty Day (Libby’s mother) and Debby Day (Libby’s sister) belonged to the Days themselves. As the past chapters progress, we see Patty load the shotgun and leave it in the front room after being threatened by Libby’s father, Runner, and that the axe is mistakenly left in the house after being used to chop wood for the fire. In alternating between the present and the past, Gillian Flynn allows us to follow the crime on multiple levels while we try to solve the mystery ourselves.
Flynn also does a great job of dropping the details subtly into the narrative. Early on in the story we’re given information on the injuries that Libby has sustained (references to her “mangled hand,” her “bad foot,” and her missing toes). We’re left wondering exactly how these injuries occurred, and it isn’t until later that it is revealed. The evidence is presented in a similar fashion. In the present day chapters we see the murders clinically, through case files, crime scene photos, and evidence that doesn’t fit with the theory of Ben as the sole perpetrator. In the present chapters we hear the evidence described, and in the past chapters we actually see the events that resulted in the evidence.
The characters Flynn has created in Dark Places are three-dimensional and realistic. Libby is not the stereotypical heroine. She plays on people’s sympathies and cashes in on being the sole survivor of a tragedy. She is lazy, mean-spirited, quick-tempered, and self-indulgent. She is also very selfish, and in fact, she has no interest in the murders until she is offered money to investigate. Libby is actually a very unlikable character, but is a realistic portrayal of someone who had to go through something so traumatic early in life. The other characters are similarly complex. Ben Day is not what you expect of the (possibly) wrongly accused. He is deeply flawed as well, and both in Libby’s present day talks with him in prison and in the past chapters narrated from his viewpoint, we can see that although he’s a generally good (albeit moody) person, he also has a darkness inside him. Even though the evidence seems to be pointing away from him, the reader continues to wonder throughout the story whether he is the killer after all. Patty Day is one of the better characters in the novel, a hard-working single Mom struggling to raise her four children and keep her farm afloat. Though her intentions are good, even Patty admits she isn’t as responsible as she should be, commenting that she doesn’t have the energy to devote to her children. She’s even relieved that Ben spends so much time alone in his room, rather than being concerned by it, because that way she doesn’t have to deal with him. Although the characters Flynn creates are not “good,” she imbues each with enough humanity that we can sympathize with them and understand their actions, even if we don’t condone them.
The Praiseworthy: Dark Places is a wonderful example of a well-crafted mystery; it gives us all the information we need to solve the crime, dropping it in subtly so that when the killer is revealed we see it, but didn’t see it coming. Flynn does this quite well; I found myself taking note of the relevant details, but was not able to put it all together until just a few pages before the climax. For example, (view spoiler)[the “Angel of Debt,” who was the murderer of Patty and Debby, is mentioned by the Kill Club in the first few chapters of the book, as a theoretical serial killer (unrelated to the murders of the Day family). (hide spoiler)] The writing in Dark Places is solid throughout, and there are many instances of great writing as well. The narration in Libby’s perspective often slips into a rambling stream-of-consciousness that is quite realistic:
But he wasn’t home when we went to bed, and when I woke up the light was on. I remember a flush of relief because Ben was home because his light was on and the fight was over between him and my mom at least for today because the light was on and he was talking behind the door, maybe on his new phone, or to himself, but the light was on.
Flynn’s writing also has a number of gems of language, constructions of words that are almost poetic in their meaning:
[Eight hundred dollars.] The figure actually made her laugh. Did the guy really think that was her pocket change? Could he not look around and see how poor they were, the kids in shirtsleeves in the middle of winter, the kitchen freezer stacked with cheap meat, each marked with a long-gone year? That’s what they were: a home past the expiration date. (emphasis added)
Dark Places also contains simple writing that strikes a chord with the reader on a deeper level; writing that one can identify with:
It was surprising that you could spend hours in the middle of the night pretending things were OK, and know in thirty seconds of daylight that that simply wasn’t so.
The Shortcomings: Because the chapters alternate between past and present, we’re often left on a cliffhanger, with issues unresolved between chapters. While many people love this style of writing, it is my personal preference to have things mostly settled chapter to chapter. However, this style bothers me most when the cliffhangers are very contrived. In Dark Places, although I remained very curious about the events unfolding at the end of each chapter, I didn’t find the carried suspense too distracting.
The Verdict: I would recommend Dark Places to readers who enjoy crime stories, and are seeking a mystery that allows them to follow the crime on a number of different levels. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The One Sentence Summary: An Irish cop, who is also a serial killer, gets transferred to the NYPD in an exchange program and is partnered up with an u...moreThe One Sentence Summary: An Irish cop, who is also a serial killer, gets transferred to the NYPD in an exchange program and is partnered up with an unstable cop under the thumb of the mob.
The Meat and Potatoes: Matthew Patrick O’Shea has a violent personality and dreams of more action than he can find as a member of Ireland’s police force, patrolling the streets of Galway. Less than innocently, he finagles his way into an exchange program with the United States and is assigned to New York City. Shea is partnered with Kebar (known as such for his excessive use of a k-bar in subduing criminals), an unstable cop taking bribes to keep his mentally retarded sister in a nice nursing home. His unsavory ties disgust Shea, who is determined to let no one stop him from becoming a New York City Detective. But Kebar’s sister… so gorgeous, sweet, and innocent…
After spending all day reading Once Were Cops, I find myself beginning to write with a bit of a Bruen-esque flair. That is to say, in not-quite-complete sentences, and bordering on steam-of-consciousness. Bruen has an interesting and truly refreshing writing style. The novel is presented in the past tense, varying between the first person (those sections from Shea’s perspective) and the third person omniscient. His sentences are short and clipped, and his paragraphs rarely contain more than a single fragment or sentence. For example:
Kebar said, “You wanna stop doing that, sir?” He didn’t.
This creates a fast flowing and frank narrative. Descriptions are minimalist and details are rarely given unless essential to the plot. Though unusual, Bruen uses this style well, and it comes across as very natural for the gruff, no-nonsense personalities of the characters.
Another curiosity is Bruen’s rejection of the traditional novel formatting. Instead of beginning each paragraph with a first line indent, he uses a hanging indent, separating each by a blank line. Though odd on the surface, this is a very practical decision for the short (often single line) paragraphs he employs. Rather than awkward indents on every line, indents only come in the few long paragraphs. As an aesthetic choice, it works well.
The writing in Once Were Cops is straightforward and clear. Both dialogue and thoughts are presented inside double quotation marks, and the frequent tags are used to distinguish between the two:
Lonnie thought, “Oh sweet f***.”
Kebar smiled, said, “Be seeing you.”’
Though the constant use of the dialogue tag “said” keeps us on track with which character we’re following and is consistent throughout, there were a number of times when not only could the tag have been omitted, it would have read much better if Bruen had done so. Take the following section, in which I have struck-through the unnecessary tag:
“Would you like to visit?” F***… no. I said, “Yes.”
Without the “I said,” the contrast between Shea thinking “f*** no” (which is presented as narration since his chapters are in the first person) and his answering “yes” is much more striking.
The writing in Once Were Cops is terrific and although the narration often contains run-ons, mispunctuation, and sentences that jump around with the speed of thought, it is obvious that this was by conscious decision. In employing this style, Bruen keeps us in the characters’ heads, even when the narration is in the third person.
Once Were Cops also contains subtle and delightful instances of foreshadowing:
Much as I loved Nora’s neck, and Jesus, I did, somewhere in me, I thought… no… not her, she might be my salvation.
This doesn’t tell us much about what is to come other than to give a heads up that 1) some major event is coming, and 2) the narration is being presented from some time distant to that event. I always enjoy picking up these little hints as they come along, and Bruen does a good job of giving us bits of information without overdoing it.
Bruen also surprised me by introducing a new protagonist almost halfway through the novel. (view spoiler)[ After Kebar is killed, the story needs a new foil for Shea if it is to continue. Enter Joe, an investigative reporter and the sister of Shea’s girlfriend, Nora, who ended up strangled to death in the same manner as Shea’s victims. Desperate to find out the truth of what happened to his sister, Joe investigates the crime and quickly zeroes in on Shea. In a way, Once Were Cops is split into two distinct stories: Shea’s early days patrolling with Kebar and his rise in the NYPD, and Shea’s downfall once Joe is on his trail. Neither of these stories is enough to stand on its own, but they complement each other nicely, and I wasn’t troubled by Bruen’s introduction of a third main character so late in the novel. (hide spoiler)] The Praiseworthy: As discussed above, Once Were Cops is written in a fresh and unusual style. The short paragraphs allow the reader to fly through the novel, but still allow for the insertion of the details necessary to connect with the characters. In Once Were Cops, Bruen has also created a unique and compelling story. He twists the usual cop tale by informing the reader, basically up front, that the main character is both a cop and a serial killer (we get this information in the synopsis on the back of the book, and are told that something is off with Shea in the first few pages). Within a few chapters we’re both intrigued and repulsed by Shea. The presentation of the dark side of law enforcement continues when we meet Shea’s NYPD partner, Kebar, a b*stard of a cop being paid off by organized crime. Bruen manages to incorporate flashes of humanity in even these two seemingly unredeemable characters, making the readers care about their fate and want to read on.
The Shortcomings: The ending is unsatisfying. (view spoiler)[ When Shea is set up—told that his victim has awoken from her coma and is about to be interviewed about the attack—he’s easily taken in by the lie, even though he’s supposedly the most cunning character in the novel. Although I recognized the possibility that he could be so distraught at leaving a loose end that he wasn’t thinking clearly, I didn’t find the ease with which he was deceived to be true to his character. Also, he’s billed as a calculating sociopath, and those types don’t often let emotions get the better of them. Honestly, this conclusion feels like a rushed way to tie up what was an otherwise well-crafted story.
And on a more practical note, the fact that Shea is shot and killed in the end raises a technical question: Where did his first person, past-tense reflections come from? When he thinks things like, “They’d missed the beads, stupid f***s, with all that came after, that would have proved their case… dumb b*stards.” When does he have time to reflect and narrate “all that came after,” if he is shot and killed before realizing that “the jig is up”?
The epilogue is similarly poor, in my opinion. It creates more questions than it answers, setting up a cliffhanger that is more properly suited to a television drama than the conclusion of a novel. Instead of tying up the loose ends and showing us how the characters have progressed beyond the narrative present, as is common for an epilogue, Bruen seems instead to be conveniently positioning his next novel. (hide spoiler)] The Verdict: I would recommend Once Were Cops to readers who enjoy crime stories, especially with a psychological slant, and those who aren’t distracted by unconventional formatting and writing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The One Sentence Summary: A creative nonfiction novel exploring the shocking motiveless murders of the prosperous Clutter family in 1950s rural Kansas...moreThe One Sentence Summary: A creative nonfiction novel exploring the shocking motiveless murders of the prosperous Clutter family in 1950s rural Kansas.
The Meat and Potatoes: On the morning of Sunday, November 14, 1959, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, son Kenyon, and daughter Nancy were found bound, gagged, and shot in the heads with a 14-guage rifle. The Clutters were respected residents of a peaceful farming community in Kansas and, although wealthy, were known to conduct all business by check rather than holding cash. The crime appeared motiveless. This is a true story. Truman Capote read about this crime in a New York Times blurb just days after it occurred. On the lookout for a crime that could provide the subject for an experimental nonfiction novel, he travelled to Holcomb, Kansas with his lifelong friend and author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, arriving just two days after the funeral. Capote befriended town residents, witnesses, and the detectives, following the case and hoping it would unfold into something he could use for a novel. In Cold Blood explores the lives of the victims, the killers, the detectives, and the town, presenting a full picture of the shocking crime. The point of view of the novel shifts frequently, showing the events through the eyes of whatever character is most relevant at the time. The reader learns the identity of the killers long before the authorities, and follows them as they make their pre-crime preparations, as well as travelling to Mexico and around the US once the crime has been committed. Through correspondence with family members, pretrial psychiatric assessments, and descriptions of the killers’ lives in their own words Capote shows the readers the humanity in the seemingly inhuman murderers, something that is rarely accomplished simply by following a case in the media. The novel also follows the detectives through various theories of the crime as they sift through the evidence. Essentially, In Cold Blood presents a bird’s eye view of the murders, the investigation, and all the major players, satisfying the reader that every possible angle of this mysterious case has been explored.
The Praiseworthy: In Cold Blood defines a genre. This was the first book to combine journalism and the novel, to present the true facts of a real-life event within a fictionalized narrative. Also, enough cannot be said about the quality of the writing. Unlike many true crime books of today, Capote takes the time to craft gorgeous sentences and paragraphs. Although the journalistic slant is very apparent, Capote’s tale reads like high quality literary fiction. Listen to how he leads us into the courthouse setting:
Among Garden City’s animals are two grey tomcats who are always together—thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinize the engine grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travelers from afar, often yield what the bony methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds—crows, chickadees, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they were surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle. Having cruised Main Street, they invariably turn the corner at Main and Grant, then lope along towards Courthouse Square, another of their hunting grounds—and a highly promising one on the afternoon of Wednesday 6 January, for the area swarmed with Finney County vehicles that had brought to town part of the crowd populating the square.
The Shortcomings: Depending on your reasons for reading it, In Cold Blood could come across as overly detailed. Capote includes pages and pages of information such as the killers’ own detailed accounts of their lives, and correspondence (reproduced in full) from family members. If this were a traditional fiction novel, an editor would have hacked those sections to pieces. Since it’s instead an exploration of a true crime, these details can be interesting and informative, although they do tend to interrupt the narrative flow. Similarly, in his zeal to present the whole story surrounding the case, Capote makes some questionable decisions regarding what to include. After the killers have been tried, convicted, and sent to death row, he includes in-depth discussions of the deeds of the other criminals on their cell block, which only factor into the story in that the killers interact with these men occasionally. The novel moves very quickly at first, but these details tend to bog down the reading in the end.
The Verdict: I would recommend In Cold Blood to all who enjoy true crime, any who have an interest in the case of the Clutter murders, and those keen on reading a highly detailed narrative of murder. (less)