Katherine Blake’s The Uninnocent: Notes on Violence and Mercy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in recent memory. I purposefully do not call this book true crime because although it has many true crime elements—a violent murder and the search for the reasons why that crime was committed—Blake’s text resists the category of one genre. The Uninnocent examines a murder committed by Blake’s cousin, who experienced a psychological break and killed a young boy he didn’t know. The text uses this case to ask much larger questions, and by extension resists being pigeonholed as straight true crime or straight memoir:
“What Didion borrowed from Yeats to describe San Francisco but also America more broadly with still true: the centre was not holding. Back then it was Vietnam and LSD, racism and assassination. Four decades later it was tent cities and evictions, opioids and meth, school shootings and racism and prisons filled to their literal ceilings with bodies.”
Blake follows in the footsteps of writers like Joan Didion to describe not only a place (San Francisco, the city in which Blake was born), but also a feeling, a context, a tone that pervades so strongly that one is compelled to put the feeling to paper. She does this here and throughout her text to take us beyond the context of a single crime to express a myriad of crimes, crimes within the justice system, and crimes at the national and state level.
Blake furthers the context from which she is writing by explaining that as the Sandy Hook parents were fighting for tougher gun laws in front of congress, she was graduating law school as those parents lost that fight. Blake also explains that “around the same time, my sixteen-year-old cousin, who’d had a mental break and murdered a child, was being tried as an adult and facing life in prison without parole. The world of law that I’d studied and worked to be a part of seemed irredeemable.” This case, the case of a young man who walks outside and stabs a stranger to death on a bike path, is what drew me to this book. Endless questions arise around a case like this. What I loved about this book is that Blake doesn’t spend her whole text trying to determine why her cousin murdered a young boy. Of course, she wonders. She explores the why, but alongside even larger questions. Questions about the law, and the system that underpins it, and her place within that system. She also questions what it means to be heartbroken in a context like this one. She wonders:
“Where did the word come from, why does it mean so many things, how do you keep your heart intact, how do you go on after it breaks, what does justice look like for the broken-hearted, what does it mean to heal, do you inherit the heartbreak of generations past?”
Blake spends a lot of time in The Uninnocent wondering about heartbreak within the context of the broken justice system, her own family, and the family of the boy her cousin murdered. I really connected with the philosophical musings of Blake’s text and thought it was incredibly apt that a true crime text deal with something like this directly. Because, as she explains in beautiful and poetic prose, all crimes begin and end with heartbreak:
“I didn’t understand that this was a story about two sons. A story, on both sides, about losing your child, a primal story of pain. And I didn’t understand that both ways had fallen prey—one to the violence of murder, and the other to a slow and steady violence, the invisible invasion of a disease, ravaging for days and months, maybe years.”
Blake does search for the “whys” in the case of her cousin, as she similarly searches for “whys” within the criminal justice system—that is, she explains that “we act as if fairness and justice are synonyms, but they are not. Fairness is technical, tied to the world we can see…but justice holds what is seen and unseen.” She follows this line of questioning through prison visits and law school classrooms and teaching the incarcerated. What she finds is grey in between the black and white, the “Uninnocent” between the innocent and the guilty. If you are looking for a book that is straight true crime, with case files dispersed between a beginning, middle, and end, then this book may not be for you, because this book offers much more than a beginning, middle, and end. It offers years of questions and discoveries about a crime and the system through which it was punished. If offers questions and discoveries about how our fundamental selves change when we are faced with violence and heartbreak. For its beautiful prose, intensive research, and apt storytelling, I cannot recommend this book enough.
A Copy of The Uninnocent was graciously provided to True Crime Index by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.