A Killer Con Man on the Loose

Boston Globe/Getty Images
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in an immigration photograph from 1978 (left); as Christopher Chichester in the 1980s, when he is believed to have committed murder (right); and as Clark Rockefeller in 2008, during his arraignment in Boston on kidnapping charges and shortly before the discovery of his true identity (center)

Blood Will Out is an intimate portrait of a professional confidence man. Our hero thinks nothing of assuming false identities, lying strategically, and risking close relationships in order to sustain a life devoted to the art of fabrication. Like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, he comes from a humble background but has high social aspirations. He is motivated by a great “yearning,” a desire to become someone grander than himself. As is true of any successful con artist, he is a scrupulous observer, a careful listener, and a determined flatterer. When he finally does achieve his goals—financial success, esteem, access to worlds formerly closed off to him—he feels vindicated, triumphant, even ecstatic. He is his own creator. He is the personification of the American Dream.

Blood Will Out is the true story of the relationship between this man—Walter Kirn—and a second con man, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, whom Kirn calls “the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history.” Gerhartsreiter shares all of the above traits with Kirn, but has one more besides: Gerhartsreiter is a murderer. He was convicted, last year, for the 1985 murder of a twenty-seven-year-old computer programmer in Los Angeles. If that wasn’t bad enough, Kirn suspects that Gerhartsreiter also ran over two of his pet dogs. Kirn admits having run over a dog himself, but not on purpose, and unlike Gerhartsreiter, he feels sorry about it.

Billed as a story about Kirn “being duped by a real-life Mr. Ripley,” Blood Will Out has two big surprises. The first is how little we learn about this real-life Ripley; the second is the extent to which Kirn out-Ripleys Gerhartsreiter. Kirn has created a fascinating, expertly paced, strikingly written ouroboros tale of two con artists circling each other—a lower-stakes replay of a trope familiar from film noir (Two of a Kind, Night and the City, The Usual Suspects, The Spanish Prisoner, and the recent American Hustle) and even screwball comedy (Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise remains the gold standard). Blood Will Out, like all of these stories, keeps the reader guessing. Who, really, is being conned here? Is it Kirn? Gerhartsreiter? By the end of the book, having learned a thing or two from Kirn about confidence games, a thoroughly cynicized reader might propose a third candidate: the reader.

Kirn’s shaggy dog story is redolent of doggie fur and doggie breath and begins with a doggie road trip. In the summer of 1998 Kirn volunteers to drive a decrepit Gordon setter from Livingston, Montana, to the Upper East Side apartment of a wealthy eccentric named Clark Rockefeller. Kirn…

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