A book review by Zachary Ashford
In this poetically brutal work of fiction, Sam Kolesnik invokes the spirit of the True Crime magazines that inspired its name to deliver a lurid and discomforting tale. After committing the ultimate gateway crime, abused siblings Suzy and her brother Lim hit the road in a desperate plea to escape the trappings of their small town and strike out for freedom. Written from Suzy’s first-person perspective, True Crime is a reflective novella that deals with the ongoing impacts of childhood trauma: a damaged child when she first goes on the lam, Suzy shares her journey into young adulthood with the matter of fact reflections that lead us through the ever-escalating series of senselessly violent events she experiences and inflicts as she struggles to find her place in the world.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of flipping through the pages of True Crime magazine or its ilk, you’ll be well informed for the kind of story Kolesnik has captured in the pages of her debut novella. As befits a book compared to the work of such luminaries as Jack Ketchum, the horrors in this one are strictly human in their approach, and they’re all the more terrifying for it.
As someone who works with teenagers, this is a book that was immediately unsettling and one that hit home. Hard. Everyone has heard the horror stories and rumours about ‘trauma kids’ and Kolesnik captures the essence of psychological trauma’s biggest scars in detail that it’s impossible to turn away from. The struggle to accept kindness, the attraction to other abusers, the inability to trust; they’re all captured in this book. The fact that Kolesnik makes Suzy such an empathetic character despite her crimes and her refusal to believe she could be a victim when offered the chance to shift blame make the author’s characterisation of her troubled protagonist nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, Suzy’s a classic unreliable protagonist, she has to be, but it’s impossible not to hang off her every word and hope for her redemption. Ultimately, though, this is a horror story and the novella’s devastating resolution is one that leaves you wondering just what will become of the protagonist. You want to think everything’s going to be fine but Suzy’s final words will linger in your gut and loiter in your mind as you realise that everything she’s experienced may be too much for her to ever truly recover from. What you’re left with is the idea that Suzy, still as damaged as ever, may be about to sabotage her own redemption arc before she’s able to accept it – and that, right there, is what makes this a powerful piece of psychological horror.
Aesthetically, this book is a shining example of a simple narrative written beautifully. The plain prose strings the reader along, and when the violence comes, it comes like a hammer-blow. That’s not all, though. Kolesnik’s characterisation, both of Suzy and her hero-worshipped brother Lim, leave crystal clear images of their personality behind.
Perhaps the most remarkable feat in this work, though, is the clever use of the recurring symbolism of True Crime magazine itself. The magazine is never far from Suzy’s mind, and the juxtaposition of the images contained within the magazine’s pages and her tight embrace of her traumatic upbringing are linked symbiotically. The author’s references to the magazine measure Suzy’s wonder, justify Suzy’s intelligence, and counterpoint her protagonist’s understandings of violence. That takes skill and a deft understanding of craft.
And that brings me back to my earlier point about Kolesnik’s work being a reflective meditation on the impacts of trauma. Despite the fact Suzy wants to see the world in shades of grey and cross the psychological gap she sees between her and ‘humanity’, her world is memorialized in black and white newspaper print. As a result, True Crime has literary weight. It’s a heavy tale of a young girl’s futile struggle for innocence. It’s a violent and tragic bildungsroman, and it’s a strong argument for horror fans to see Kolesnik as a champion of nasty, psychological, and human horror.