William Cook examines the question in his novel Blood Related, but he never really takes a side. The killers he’s created, twin brothers Charlie and Caleb Cunningham, could be presented as compelling evidence for arguments either way. On the nurture side, both boys suffer through a horrific childhood in which they are the victims of, and witnesses to, mounds of physical and psychological torture. Their father, Errol, is a sadistic killer, luring prostitutes to the family’s labyrinthine home and dispatching them without remorse. After Errol plugs a hose into his car’s exhaust pipe, killing himself and disappearing into local legend, Charlie and Caleb move quickly to take up the “family business.”
Counterbalancing the Cunninghams is Ray Truman, a local cop who has spent a good portion of his career in pursuit of the killers terrorizing the small town of Portvale. Ray is consumed with bringing the Cunningham clan to justice – even if his version of justice is tainted by the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to obtain it.
Cook has fashioned portions of his book after the “true crime” books that document the careers of real serial killers, telling the story not only through Caleb’s eyes but also in sections written as case studies, letters, and accounts from other characters. It’s a good way to look at the events from a number of angles rather than seeing everything from a killer’s point of view, but those sections don’t always ring true as written. The overall “voice” of the book doesn’t vary enough to make these transitions as distinct as they need to be.
In his pursuit to dredge up the bottom-most depths of human depravity, Cook makes it difficult to find anyone in the novel to sympathize with. I think we’re meant to view Caleb as a victim – perhaps he’s the “nurture” side of the equation, whereas the utterly cold and remorseless Charlie is the “nature” side – but it’s hard to empathize with someone who views murder as art. As for the victims themselves, they are largely ignored, treated mostly as anonymous cannon fodder for the brothers’ killing sprees. Even their mother is reprehensible.
In the end, the bleakness of the book and its characters becomes numbing. Yes, it raises some serious and interesting questions about the human capacity for obsession and bloodlust. But the lack of relatable characters – just a sliver of light in the gloom – makes it difficult to muddle through. Perhaps reading this is a glimpse into how the social workers, beat cops and detectives of the world must feel, sifting through human wreckage day after day in an attempt to bring some order to the chaos. Or maybe I’m just a wimp. Either way, Blood Related overwhelmed me.