Book Review: We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman
By Ray PalenJune 27, 2019
Based off the crimes made famous by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman wonders what if Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were working with a third man—and what if he was still alive…
On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. In 1965, New York City writer Truman Capote caused a furor around the entire publishing industry when he released what he referred to as a ‘Non-Fiction Fiction’ book entitled In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood not only provided an eerily intimate retelling of the Clutter killing and the two perpetrators, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, but also invented an entirely unique literary genre which came to be known as New Fiction. New Fiction is a writing style where the material reads like a fictional novel but involves real people and invents. Other authors such as Tom Wolfe followed in this tradition with his collection The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and later his bestseller, The Right Stuff.
Now, in 2019, author Becky Masterman has one-upped the late, great Truman Capote by blending both fictional and non-fictional characters in her novel We Were Killers Once. At the heart of this page-turner is a question that Masterman poses to her reading public—what if there were a third killer involved in the Clutter family massacre? Even more chilling than that supposition is the next question—what if he were still alive?
If you are a fan of suspenseful mysteries and thrillers, that set-up for We Were Killers Once should make you jump out of your seat (like it did for me) and send you on your way in search of this novel which is bound to be not only a great beach read but one of the best novels of 2019. Masterman burst onto the scene in 2013 with her terrific debut novel, Rage Against the Dying, which introduced a retired FBI Agent named Brigid Quinn. Quinn now resides in Arizona and shares residence with a Philosophy Professor and former Priest, Carlo. He plays a central role in this, the fourth release in the Brigid Quinn series.
Masterman uses a quote from one of the executed killers, Perry Smith, to kick-off this novel: “Being brought up one way and trying to see another way is very difficult.” This dichotomy in Smith’s own personality is evident in the storytelling of We Were Killers Once. In fact, it is an alleged letter from the other executed killer, Dick Hickock, that is the key to this novel. What Masterman does so cleverly is take what we already know about the Clutter murder case and alleges that Dick Hickock gave someone a letter before he was executed which reveals that not only was there a third killer involved but that they may have done most of the killing themselves.
Brigid and Carlo are discussing the Clutter case and the novel In Cold Blood one night when Brigid infers that Capote failed to mention a family from Florida named the Walkers who were also murdered and that it may very well have been the same men who were executed for the Clutter murders. Eventually, Carlo shares with Brigid that a painting that had been given to him when he was a Priest may have the letter written by Dick Hickock.
As we face this stunning narrative, Masterman throws in a second one that is voiced by a man just paroled from prison by the name of Jerry Beaufort. Beaufort is a small, wiry, and much older man than when he entered prison. It was a shock to him that he was paroled, but his upstanding behavior and prison overcrowding opened the door for him. He now makes his way into a world that is foreign to him—but not different enough that he can’t quickly adapt and fall back on the sociopathic tendencies that he had lived by on the outside. Beaufort is a dangerous man who is aware of the alleged Hickock letter and knows he is the ‘third man’ who was involved in the Clutter and Walker killings, among others. It does not take him long until he is on a direct path with Brigid and Carlo—and things will not end well.
We Were Killers Once is a stunning achievement that is near impossible to put down. Readers will quickly lose themselves in this novel and forget that it is a blend of fact and fiction—it just feels right. I love Brigid Quinn and hope we see more of her from Masterman. Whatever her next adventure may be, it will be very hard to top the achievement of this great novel.