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WE WERE KILLERS ONCE
by Becky Masterman
Penguin Canada, June 2019
320 pages
$24.95 CAD
ISBN: 0143196693


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Fifty years ago, two men invaded the Kansas farm home of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two daughters. They claimed to be in search of a large amount of cash that Mr Clutter was reputed to have on hand. By the time dawn broke, the four Clutters were dead and the two assailants, Dick Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, were on the run, richer by less than fifty dollars and a pair of binoculars. They remained at large for close to two months, travelling as far as Florida before being picked up in Las Vegas.

If it had not been for Truman Capote, aided by Harper Lee, the Clutters and their fate would certainly rapidly been forgotten, except perhaps in their Kansas neighbourhood. But Capote became intrigued by the story even before the culprits were apprehended, went off to Kansas and, after a lengthy investigation, produced a book that he famously identified as "non-fiction fiction," IN COLD BLOOD. If this was not the first in its genre (opinions vary), it decidedly was not the last.

Now, more than fifty years later, Becky Masterman returns to the case (and to the book) and to another family massacre, that of the Walker family in Florida, to which Hickock and Smith have been linked, though not definitively. While following Capote quite closely, she picks up on anomalies and questions that remain to produce a quite startling scenario.

In Capote's account, there is a reference to the pair having picked up an unnamed boy on the road who was collecting bottles. Masterman turns this nameless kid into Jeremiah Beaufort, recently let out of prison where he was incarcerated under the three strikes law. He's been in there a long time, and the modern world is a bit of a puzzle to him. One thing he has heard about is the ability of DNA to prove the innocence (or the guilt) of persons who have been found guilty even of crimes that took place many years ago.

Jeremiah (Jerry) is not worried about innocence. He's guilty of participating in both the Clutter and the Walker killings and determined to do everything he can to protect himself. He has heard that a document exists that will change what everyone believes true about these crimes. And that document, Jerry thinks, is in the possession of Carlo di Forenza, who is the husband Brigid Quinn, the sixty-year-old retired FBI agent who believes she has finally found what she most desired in Carlo.

Carlo is an former priest, one who was earlier married to a woman who died. He is also a retired professor of philosophy. He and Brigid do make something of an odd couple and the strains that Jerry's dogged and ultimately violent pursuit of the document put on their relationship prove both enlightening and threatening.

Carlo's experience and temperament prevent him from suspecting Jerry of being anything but a somewhat intrusive stranger; Bridget's alert her instantly to something off about this man who is clearly keeping something to himself. And it will come as no surprise to learn that it's just as well that it does.

As the plot unfolds, the tension mounts, reaching a climax that is both violent and revealing. Whether it is quite plausible is another matter, but the reader is hardly likely to care about that. There is further suspense about whether the marriage will survive the revelation of the profound difference between the partners. But that's the kind of question that should take time to resolve. Perhaps the next volume in the series will settle it.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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