The influence of true crime cases on the evolution of crime fiction is undeniable. Certain cases become so infamous that it would be impossible (and unrealistic) for authors in the genre not to reflect on them. Readers can easily find examples of novels that were inspired by cases like The Black Dahlia, the senseless killing of two-year-old James Bulger, or the horrific crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer. As a particular challenge, occasionally an author will even weave those actual true crimes into their fictional narrative. This is what Becky Masterman does with We Were Killers Once, the fourth book in her celebrated Brigid Quinn thriller series.
The true crime at the core of We Were Killers Once is the Clutter family murders, made noteworthy largely because of Truman Capote’s narrative non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Becky Masterman uses the details of the Clutter killings and those of a later case – the Walker family killings, for which Perry Smith and Dick Hickok are also often accused – to propel a convincing thriller plot-line for her series heroine.
As the novel begin, Brigid is attempting to settle into married life with her beloved Carlo. Despite being together for some time, there is still so much they don’t really know about each other. While reminiscing, they discover a shared interest in the cases against Perry Smith and Dick Hickok. Brigid’s father gave her a copy of In Cold Blood at a very young age and that might have lead to her eventual path with the FBI, while Carlo’s connection to the case stems from his work as a prison chaplain in the location where Smith and Hickok were jailed.
Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated story-line, Jeremiah “Jerry” Randolph Beaufort is being released from prison. After years of being on the inside, the world has moved on without Jerry and his unfamiliarity with advances in technology, slang, and modern society in general make his adjustment to the outside world challenging at best. Having heard about the advancements made with DNA and other crime-solving methods, Jerry is concerned that his freedom may only be a short-term prospect.
Eventually, a rumor of a second written confession by Dick Hickock – where he once again changes his story about the Clutter killings and his time on the run with Perry afterwards – will link these two story-lines in a significant way. Jerry Beaufort believes that Carlo possesses this confession and he will do anything to prevent its content from being made public. Brigid, immediately suspicious of Jerry, digs deeper into the past hoping to discover what Jerry is looking for. If this document truly exists, where is it and who will find it first?
This type of cat and mouse game is nothing new for the thriller genre, but because Becky Masterman has made readers care about these characters deeply over the course of the series, the stakes here are incredibly high. No two of the books in this series have been the same, and that is once again true with We Were Killers Once. The weaving in of details from the true crimes is inspired and firmly-rooted in the actual evidence. Of course, Jerry is a fictional (or maybe, fictional-ish) character, but nothing Masterman presents feels implausible given the records available.
A fan-favorite character, Brigid’s niece Gemma-Kate, is also involved once again. A school assignment for which Gemma-Kate interviews Carlo allows for another angle into the true crime elements of We Were Killers Once. By using these multiple story-lines, Becky Masterman prevents those sections that document what we already know about the Clutter Family killings from feeling like necessary data dumps. Those unfamiliar with the case can “discover” it along with Gemma-Kate, while those who are more intimately knowledgeable about the subject can sidle up to Brigid as she excavates deeper into the case.
Finally, it would not be a Becky Masterman novel if there were not a huge emotional element working as a through line to the action. In this case, it goes back to Brigid and Carlo’s new marriage. Brigid finds herself struggling against the life she imagines Carlo lived with his first wife, Jane. She finds herself both competing with this ghost of his past and unsure that Carlo would really love her if he knew her deepest secrets.
Becky Masterman continues to break new ground with her series. We Were Killers Once is a fast-paced read that manages to blend fact and fiction in compelling ways – thereby adding depth and relevance to both. Newcomers to the series will be able to enjoy this novel, but those familiar with the characters will experience the full emotional heft brought about by this chapter in their lives. The title, We Were Killers Once, works on multiple levels, the impact of which will only be fully realized at the conclusion.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.