An unsolvable mystery

I have a number of fallback books, for lack of a better term — a rotating group that I like to read as comfort food in between all the other ones that I’m regularly devouring. Sometimes I stop one book just to get my way through a fallback book as a way to cleanse the mental palate, or just simply because I find it more interesting than the new one I’m reading (which should give those authors pause, if they knew).

Right now that book is Jerry Bledsoe’s Bitter Blood, which on the face of it is ‘just’ another true crime story. I should explain this by saying that one of my casual interests over the years, possibly following on from an even earlier interest in classic mystery fiction when I was younger, thanks to my Conan Doyle/Agatha Christie loving mom, has been true crime stories, which in their own way have become an established literary genre, growing out of many different roots, from the details of bureaucratic records to penny-dreadfuls and the increase of mass-market literacy in the nineteenth century. If something like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood helped codify the approach, for my part it was probably Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision which was my first introduction as such, in part thanks to the miniseries version of the story that stirred my interest in the story and led me to pick up the book used in 1985. I don’t have it any more, but as you can see from that link, the cover alone helps set the sense of codification as I encountered it for such books in that decade — a short title (quite often two words, one of them referring to death or mayhem somehow), an iconic image on the cover, huge type…it’s as formalized as any other genre style, really, and no less interesting for that reason.

My reading in the field has always been random, and it’s not like I read every such book — there are so many out there that, as with everything else, it’s a matter of picking and choosing. Also, though I wasn’t immediately conscious of it when younger but much more so now, it’s a case where none of these books should have been written. Not that they couldn’t be written about; rather, when the subject is abuse, murder, destruction and mental horror, one has to eventually come to grips with the fact that the act of reading these books is a realization that one is engaging in a form of catharsis, shot through with a ‘There but for the grace of god go I’ sentiment. The feeling that people died so one could have a casual afternoon’s reading material is problematic — it reminds me, in less violent but no less tragic a sense, of the various compliments I’ve received over time when I wrote brief memories or eulogies for friends or family who have passed. However flattered one might feel, a compliment cannot take the place of a loss.

This all said, I still read such books as I can from time to time, most recently before this being Erik Larsen’s Thunderstruck, which combines ‘true crime’ as such with popularized social and scientific history, as is his wont (and he’s done an entertaining job of it in his recent books). Bitter Blood, though, is one of those books I just keep coming back to, something I seem to reread at least every couple of years. The reasons why, I think, are multiple — and some practical: I have it in paperback form, I bought it used (I honestly don’t remember when or what prompted the purchase) so it’s already beaten well and therefore easy to just reread without fear of breaking an already-broken spine, it’s easy to carry around on a whim. I could say that about a number of books I own, they just happen to apply here as well.

Beyond that, I’d say that Bitter Blood‘s appeal lies in two key points, aided by the fact that Bledsoe is a good writer in general, detailed without being dull, having clearly worked to get as much on the record as possible from everyone who was left behind. First, the crimes themselves and the tangled history behind them are profoundly disturbing — saying it was a ‘family affair’ is accurate but conveys only the slightest sense of what was happening. First one set of family members and then another were essentially executed, finally culminating in a last act of destruction that at once ended the lives of those responsible while further taking innocent lives with them. As the book unfolds, the increasing amount of detail brings in everything from horrific child abuse — less physical in ways than mental — to individual takes on any number of conspiracy theories and theological quandaries to the question of what it means to be family in general. A lot is quietly but carefully put together in the book, reflecting the endless complexity of individual lives and mindsets as much as one can (since the true range can never been captured, no matter the person being depicted), while the conclusion of the crime wave is simultaneously perfectly understandable and utterly, completely insane.

The second point, though, is the one that Bledsoe himself notes in the book’s conclusion: “I set out to write this book with two major goals: to learn to my own satisfaction what had happened in this immense family tragedy, and, more important, to understand why. I failed at both.” It takes a certain kind of inner strength for any reporter or writer to go right ahead and say that rather than aiming for a neat, wrapped-up-with-a-bow ending — more than most writers on the subject, Bledsoe allows for the fact that questions not only remain but are all the more terrible for being unanswered. Rather than ending with the final crime, the book continues for some time to come, dwelling on various legal resolutions and conclusions but also exploring the actions of those having to live with the events well into the future — as one family member put it, simply but sadly, “It’s just a constant source of grief. There’s no way anybody could come to terms with it….There just won’t be an end to it. It’ll haunt us until we die.”

Bitter Blood, as a dramatic, creative piece, therefore has much less in common with, say, Murder on the Orient Express than it does with something like Rashomon or even L’Avventura — there is a gap that cannot be filled, a final conclusion that refuses to be drawn, much as it would be ‘satisfying’ to do so. No death-row confession, no extended psychiatric profile, merely evidence to sift through, memories to reflect on from an outside perspective. Whoever writes ‘the’ book, if there is one, on the Virginia Tech massacre will find themselves grappling with the same problem, and it will be illustrative to see how it is addressed. In Bledsoe’s case, the context that he introduces and sets more and more as the book progresses — the tensions between police departments, political undercurrents, assumptions about class and, in a more sublimated but no less pointed way, race [some of the principals in the law-enforcement side were simultaneously involved in the Darryl Hunt fiasco], parental rights and much more besides — ends up further decentering the idea of a neat narrative, a story where evil is punished and good triumphs. That, simply, does not happen here — leaving everyone involved, participants, Bledsoe, his readers, to grapple with everything at the end. There are some resolutions, but conditional, no more — hopes that may not have all played out.

Perhaps that is one reason why I like the book very much — it guarantees nothing, much as life does not guarantee anything. A reminder is always useful — but as I said earlier, it is one that should not have had to have been written, to have come at the cost of so many dead. Thus perhaps do the living hope to improve what they can, in the knowledge that they are still here.

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