Book Review: All These Bodies by Kendare Blake

All These Bodies by Kendare Blake is an edge-of-your-seat YA mystery involving 16 bloodless bodies, two teenagers, and one impossible explanation that proves the truth is as hard to believe as it is to find.

In the summer of 1958, a gruesome string of murders reshaped ordinary life in the Midwest. Corpses were found entirely drained of blood from cuts to their throats or thighs, with no rhyme or reason to the identities of the victims. Even more disturbing, there was no indication of where the victims’ blood had seemingly vanished to. The Bloodless Murders, as they were called, caused homeowners to invest in locks while entire communities instituted curfews, never knowing when or where the killer might strike next.

When Minnesota sheriff’s son Michael Jensen gets the all-hands-on-deck signal one evening, he can barely believe that the Bloodless Murderer has come to his small town of Black Deer Falls. But the Carlson family has been killed, Bob and Sarah and their teenage son, Steve, all calmly lying in their living room while they were exsanguinated. The only survivors were the Carlsons’ 2-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old stranger to the community, Marie Catherine Hale, who was found standing in the middle of all the bodies, completely drenched in blood.

At first, no one knows what to make of the strange girl, but once she’s been cleaned up and not a scratch is found on her, she’s swiftly arrested. Not because anyone thinks she killed the Carlsons but because they’re sure that she knows who actually did. Marie is strangely reluctant to say anything, finally conceding that she’ll tell her story to Michael, who is just as surprised as everyone else when she requests him as her confessor. He’s even more surprised by what she has to tell him.

So this is that story. Her story, taken down in the pages that follow. When we found her that night, in the middle of all those bodies, I didn’t know who she was. I thought she was a victim. Then I thought she was a monster. I thought her innocent. I thought her guilty. By the time she was finished, what she told me would change the way I thought, not just about her but about the truth.

Tell the truth and shame the devil. I always thought that would be easy. But what do you do when the truth that you’re faced with also happens to be impossible?

Marie’s story is certainly a strange one, but Michael soon comes to understand why she chose him and no one else to tell it to. Tinged as her tale is with the supernatural, not even he believes what she has to say until creepy things start happening as the weeks go by. Despite this looming threat and her own fear, Marie stubbornly refuses to give up the killer’s identity, claiming it to be a waste of time. To the chagrin of law enforcement, she doesn’t believe that anyone would be able to find the Bloodless Murderer and stop him from killing again.

No one seems to take this stance more personally than Nebraska District Attorney Benjamin Pilson, who wants her extradited to his home state where the killing spree apparently began. Marie and Pilson exhibit a strong mutual hatred from the start, not helped by the fact that he’s up for reelection soon and wants to appear tough on crime.

I asked Marie once why she insisted on antagonizing Pilson so badly, but she only shrugged and said that with a man like him there was no winning anyway. That even if every victim had turned up alive again she would always be guilty. Guilty of wasting his time. Guilty of being poor. Of being a girl. She said from the moment she met him she could tell that all he wanted was to find a way to strap her into Nebraska’s electric chair. But the joke was on him. Because she requested hanging.

Drawing from real-life crimes and giving them a supernatural twist could make a book like this seem more fanciful than not, but Kendare Blake grounds her story in the lived experience of women deemed unnatural and evil through time immemorial. If people aren’t going to believe a woman for being true to herself and clinging to her sense of self-respect, why not tell an outlandish story instead? If female agency is considered so monstrous, why not blame everything on a figure out of nightmare? Is a supernatural monster really so different from the human killers who prey on the fringes of society, who suck the life out of their victims before demanding all the public’s attention, relegating their victims after death to mere footnotes, appendages almost to a killer’s narrative? Is a woman’s uncompromising commitment to her own vitality not as important as the sensational story of the man who takes advantage of her?

These are intriguing questions raised by this seemingly innocuous Young Adult horror take on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Reclaiming the spotlight from monstrous men to highlight the stories of the people they damage along the way, the people who were lured and lied to and wounded, is a worthwhile act and one All These Bodies does with aplomb.

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