Modern crime novels aren’t that interesting to me. It’s not because I think the drama is too much or that crime is uninteresting. It’s this:
The writing is usually horrible.
I can’t get through a Dennis Lehane novel, I’ve tried. The character motivations were too obvious. Once I picked up a James Patterson something or other in the grocery store and couldn’t stomach it, he just used brand names as substitute for character development.
(Yes, I like some older, crime noir stuff–Jim Thompson mostly)
Also, I don’t like formulas. That’s the *creative* problem I have with most of those CBS shows. They’re exactly the same every time. Sure, people love them. They like to know what they’re going to get every time, it’s just not for me.
I’m more interested in true crime stuff, but again–it depends on the writing. In Cold Blood is of course, the standard bearer, I liked Dave Cullen’s Columbine and I read 85% of Executioner’s Song which is come, pretty amazing. This article even lists Under The Banner of Heaven and All The President’s Men as “true crime” even though I tend to think of those as more sociological investigations. Point is, both of them are great as well.
All in all, these are not my go-to stories. It takes a good writer and a very unusual subject to make something special. Which (finally) brings me to the new book by Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out.
It’s about a German man who moves to America, and then begins copying several identities. Walter Kirn gets to know this man personally when he calls himself Clark Rockefeller, yes, as part of the famed rich family. The guy Clark talks his way into exclusive dinner clubs and museums and gets a pretty nice house in New Hampshire I think.
Soon, however, he’s tracked down for a murder he committed several years earlier.
Kirn didn’t solve the crime, yet he’s still able to create a fascinating book.
Instead, Kirn talks about the effect Clark had on him, the stories he told, the lies he told and Kirn is able to piece those parts back together to see where Clark got his inspirations from.
In the process, Kirn does a lot of self-reflection and his pride takes a huge hit. “Just when you think you know a person…” goes the old line and that’s basically what this book is.
It’s more than just a crime memoir; Kirn turns it into a personal memoir. We see the struggles Kirn goes through as a writer and a husband, we see how Clark makes Walter reconsider his life.
Walter sees the story of Clark and the characters he creates and ultimately has respect for him. As a storyteller, that is. That’s really what drives Walter–how can this guy live out his fictional characters while Walter just sits at a desk making them?
It’s an intriguing question.
Here’s how I know that Walter Kirn is a better writer than most crime writers. I stopped reading another book about Clark Rockefeller. I didn’t realize at first until Kirn mentions it. The book is The Man in the Rockefeller Suit. It talks about (yes!) different crimes that this guy committed, but he’s still the same character. Yet, I found him less interesting in that story than this one.
Blood Will Out has some problems. Kirn is kinda self-obsessed, only hints at some interesting parts of his biography and probably the most egregious error is leaving out the parts about Clark’s other crimes. But his approach is a genuine one–he talks about Clark and explores Clark’s life in the way that you would any other friend. His uncovering of him isn’t journalistic or calculated, it’s one of shock, anger, and amusement.
This isn’t the definitive account of Clark Rockefeller, it’s an account. And it’s good.