In 1998, Walter Kirn is waiting to become a father and up for a noble distraction: driving a paralysed Gordon setter named Shelby from his home state of Montana to New York City. There, Shelby would meet the man who had so desperately wanted to adopt her online: Clark Rockefeller, a name with more pedigree than even the pooch. Kirn, a journalist and writer—later he would publish the novel Up in the Air, which would then be made into a George Clooney movie—handed over the dog and, without quite noticing it, handed himself over alongside her. He had a nose for interesting people and Clark, who had such a relaxed attitude to wealth that he let his dogs lick his original Rothko paintings, was enthralling. He was connected, enigmatic, and any wild speculations he had about the doomed direction the world was heading in seemed alarmingly like they could come true. Because if anyone knew, wouldn’t he?
A decade later, Clark Rockefeller abducted his young daughter during a supervised visit. By the time he was found, so too were his secrets: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was no Rockefeller, no pure-blood. And he was also the prime suspect of the 1985 murder of his neighbour, John Sohus, dug up from the ground of the property they both shared.
Having spent the intervening years listening to Clark with mute appreciation, Kirn was well-placed—and humiliated—to tell the story of a fraud who was never short of a lie to tell, and who was so convincing that even his errors would never be brought up by his friends, or his unrealistic tales of classified businesses second-guessed. One memorable moment has Clark hand a frustrated Kirn George Bush’s phone number to help him with a problem; Kirn, of course, never makes the call, despite Clark insisting he “Call George”. It’s this ability that saw Clark sustain his ruse for years, with those he married and those he befriended—but silenced in front of a jury of his peers, he is not the same force.
I genuinely enjoy true crime books where the author places themselves firmly within the events. Yes, it can show bias, but as I’ve always enjoyed fiction more than non-fiction I am much more interested in true crime when there is a personal perspective, and at least you are aware of any skewed opinions as long as the author fulfills the inherent promise of the idea by being honest. I can’t give many examples because I am no expert in the genre, but I have at least read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which this is likened to, and that did the job just beautifully. I did enjoy Kirn’s taut writing and personal honesty about his motives – heck, he likes fame – but this isn’t really the same, though it is probably not Kirn’s fault that people want to connect the two together. I did feel that Kirn talked a lot about his and Clark’s relationship in a kind of abstract way rather than making it feel real and personal, but then, their years-long friendship often did not seem real and personal, just the way not every friend we have is our pinkie-swearing blood-brother best friend forever. Sometimes there was distance in this book where I wanted up-close. But he did not cheapen any of the crimes with overzealous description, which was nice at least for me. I don’t wish to sound overly critical; I just wish I hadn’t listened to those screaming about the new Truman Capote, or relished the Amy Tan quote on the cover I had (I think One Hundred Secret Senses is just glorious), and taken it as it was: a good book, exactly the type of true crime that I liked, and one hell of a story.