We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman
Minotaur Books sent me an ARC that immediately lured me in: a modern crime novel inspired by the actual murders of the Clutter family in 1959, which was the focus of Truman Capote’s true-crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
I realized this was book four in a series (and ohhhhh how I’ve whined in the past about picking up in the middle of a series) but crossed my fingers that We Were Killers Once would work as a standalone because the premise is fascinating.
When the four Clutter family members were brutally murdered in their Kansas home, it left the country in fear. It wasn’t long before Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickok were captured, convicted, and eventually executed for the crime. The men were at one point suspected of murdering the Walker family in Sarasota, Florida while they were on the run but were never charged.
We Were Killers Once takes a look at the possibility that an unknown third person was involved in the Clutter family murders and was also responsible for the Walker family murders. The even bigger what-if: What if Richard Eugene Hickock left behind a written confession before his execution that cleared up all doubt and lingering questions?
Jerome Beaufort’s life sentence has been commuted after 33 years in Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. He’s led a life of crime though he’s only been arrested on drug charges. No one knows his involvement with Perry Smith and Dick Hickok.
“When Hickok and Smith were still alive he had lived in fear that they would rat him out. Then he stopped worrying when they died. Then he started worrying again with this whole forensic science business.” *
Beaufort’s too old to return to prison and the possibility his DNA at the Walker crime scene will eventually be revealed keeps him up at night. Before he can enjoy the rest of his life he has to make sure he has nothing to worry about.
When he sets up a “chance meeting” with Detective Ian Meadows, the cold case investigator assigned to the Walker case, he learns that there’s rumor of a confession Hickok wrote right before his execution to a priest. A priest that Detective Meadows has tracked down and plans to visit.
“He had gone into the bar thinking he was following up on the Walker case, and come out knowing that there might be a document that linked him not only to the Walkers, but to the Clutters, too. He couldn’t be sure he was safe unless he got to Hickok’s priest before Meadows did.” *
Beaufort does in fact make it to the priest’s deathbed before Meadows and is able to kill him without arousing suspicion, but only after he’s certain he has the name of the man who may now possess Dick Hickok’s confession.
Retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn has settled into a quiet life with her husband Carlo, a former Catholic priest. She’s told Carlo about her fascination with the Clutter murders, which she heard her father discuss with other policemen around their kitchen table when she was a girl.
Brigid has no idea that Carlo was chaplain for a time at the prison where Hickok served his time. He has a memento from that time that will greatly interest his wife and realizes it will make a perfect anniversary gift.
Unfortunately, Carlo doesn’t know what’s hidden within the memento and that there’s a dangerous man on his way to collect it.
We Were Killers Once has an exciting premise but unfortunately the delivery relies too much on coincidence and convenience. The “what if” is endlessly fascinating, but it didn’t feel realistic that this unknown third person would check on the case after 50+ years, I’d think he’d stay as far away as possible to remain under the radar. His meeting with the detective who happens to have a new lead after all these years seems waaaaay too convenient.
Brigid marrying someone who has a small link to the case she’s most fascinated with seems like too big of a coincidence, not to mention the fact that the link puts them in the direct path of Beaufort.
Brigid Quinn is an interesting character; we’re given a brief look into her past as an agent as well as her strengths: she’s a small woman so criminals will not consider her a threat but she has a sharp eye, reads people well, and knows how to use a weapon or two. There are characters that have obviously appeared in previous books and enough details are given that readers will not feel completely lost but vague enough you may want to go back and read the first three books.
This story was poorly constructed around an exciting “what-if”. It was an average thriller with a weak plot thanks to the way too convenient circumstances. However, I’m curious about Brigid Quinn and may pick up the first book eventually just to find out more about her.
Thanks to Minotaur Books for sending me a digital ARC via NetGalley for review. We Were Killers Once is scheduled for release on June 4, 2019.
*Quotes included are from a digital advanced reader’s copy and are subject to change upon final publication.