Part memoir, part thriller, Blood Will Out teases, pleasantly frustrates and slowly unravels to the reader interested in how reality can easily meld into fantasy.
One of the great strengths of the novel is its ability to balance brutal and delicate prose. Or, rather, its delicate handling of vivid description. When we first meet Shelby, the wheelchair-bound dog whose adoption by Clark Rockefeller is the catalyst behind Walter Kirn (author and narrator) travelling across the country and meeting the infamous murderer, Kirn is speaks of how he 'tenderly slipped [his] arms beneath her', almost as one would a lover. However, Shelby's feeble link to life is made clear when Kirn describes feeling her 'spongy, faintly rounded' organs just under the surface of her skin.
Walter agrees to take Shelby to New York to meet her new owner, the bright and dazzling Rockefeller. The similarities to Gatsby are clear and noted, though one feels Clark would kill (literally) to become more like him, more of a legend, more of a character.
Blood Will Out is a novel of dichotomies. It is a memoir – seemingly factual and reliable – while also pushing the reader to question the narrator by its constant reference to Clark's lies. It is a story of city versus country – when Clark threatens to invade the countryside, Walter is troubled. It balances the kind with the cruel, money against poverty, right versus wrong. It does all of these things deftly, nodding to the modern American novel in its style and pace. If you linger too long upon that comparison, though, you find yourself back to not trusting Walter's version of events. Is he pulling the wool over our eyes? Has he learned some tricks from his once-friend?
When Walter sees Clark talk to his other dog, Yates, in a silly, baby voice he comments that he 'realised that he was a largely self-nurtured being, a kind of waif or wolf boy, but with money. No wonder he loved animals.' Yet, later, Walter suggests that Clark may have been harming his dogs. It isn't clear if this is a change in opinion, a change in Clark's actual behaviour, or a clever allusion to Walter's own unreliability.
The novel is a study of American culture. It considers how we treat those who we perceive to be more worthy than ourselves. Kirn notes that he has 'bowed to a tinfoil prince', impressed by his apparent credentials, when really he is the one of the pair with Ivy League connections. The book asks about our relationship with popular culture, with grand figures of novels and films who commit great acts. I was reminded, strangely, of Ollivander, the wandmaker of Harry Potter, and his assertion that 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great.' Clark wants to be a hero, or an anti-hero. Famous or infamous.
The book does not particularly satisfy any morbid curiosity that you might have about the crime itself. Any details given are presented without emotion, and no real humanisation is given to the victims. Although Walter hunts for information, it is to find about more about Rockefeller. Even as he tries to break Rockefeller down, Kirn supposedly inadvertently builds him up. I say inadvertently because it does feel that Kirn is asking you to understand, to explain why he was duped, to put himself in a position of understanding and control, whilst reminding you not to trust Rockefeller.
I don't trust Rockefeller. But I also can't bring myself to trust Kirn. And it is that back and forth that makes this novel an interesting and unusual read.