In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Rating:  8.5/10

Review: I have been wanting to read this novel for a very long time. Everyime I would look at the library stocks, inevitably the book would be out for loan. It is one of those novels that still, despite the years that have passed since it was released, inspires a kind of morbid fascination in people. Few crime novels have continued to enjoy the fame that In Cold Blood still does. What is important to note about the book is that it was based on true events. The intense scrutiny that Capote has towards the situation and the reader’s voyeristic ability to walk through the event has made the book a classic and bestseller.

Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon. The Clutters.

The book is haunting in its own particular way. The novel firstly introduces us to the Clutter family who live on a ranch in Kansas. Nestled amongst the idealyic serenity of the prairies, the family have a reputation for being fair, honest and kind-hearted. They would have no reason to suspect that a plot to murder them was well underway. Yet, on a silent and moonlit night, the Clutter family were systametically murdered. The crime understandably shocked the small community of Garden City, Kansas. Suspicions were abound and the evidence was remarkably small for such a large crime. It isn’t long before the law catches up with the murderers and the true motives of why the crimes were committed starts to unravel.

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ . . .The land is flat, the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.”

What could drive two young men to decimate a family in such a way? What secrets did the family hold that could cause such a devistating result?

Dick Hickock & Perry Smith

There are so many interesting parts about this book. My favorite element of the book is the care Capote takes to detail the events. By walking through the relatively mundane last day of the Clutters, I gained a real understanding of the qualities of the family and the randomness of the attack. The suspense was increased by little hints of situations that could have interfered with the murders, such as a restless neighbour or a dog that shies from guns. These details, possible to disregard as irrelevant, actually increased my interest in the situation as my mind couldn’t help but run wild with the ‘what if,’ questions. Other small moments are implanted in my mind, such as Perry making friends with a squirrel in jail, interactions with an old man and his grandson while hitchhiking or the fate of Babe, Nancy’s loved pony. To a practical mind, these little snippets would be seen as ‘fluff,’ but they appealed to me by relaying the fact that these were all real people. They had habits and quirks and little things in their lives that they loved. These aren’t made up characters but real, true humans that could have been my neighbours or my own family.

I did find that the book only grazed the surface of the true motives behind the crimes. A product of its time, the novel only goes into the psychological states of the criminals at the very end when a psychologist has the chance to analyse them.  We are provided with an insight into the childhoods of the men and that goes some way towards explaining their states of mind. However, Capote doesn’t speculate, nor does he investigate the individuals as people who have desires and lusts and secrets.

“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.”

There are hints, here and there, of the inner psyche’s of the killers. Occasionally, you’ll get a feeling that there is more at work. One example is the use of the word ‘honey’ and ‘baby’ that Perry uses extensively. This, combined with other situations, could make one wonder whether Perry was gay. There is speculation amongst readers that this in the case, although Capote never mentions this habit of his or how he picked it up. I personally found that frustrating as these idioms were used excessively and yet no mention was made of it. As someone who enjoys exploring the inner minds of complex characters, this didn’t appeal to me. It is also a bit more confusing as Capote had no problem with breaking new ground with this book and horrifying the masses with its honesty, yet he has shied away from areas that in many ways are less controversial than murder (for example, homosexuality and mental illness).

A key thing to understand about the book is that Capote has no involvement in the narrative. He doesn’t comment on his own thoughts, how people reacted to his questioning or even how the criminals recieved him when he talked with them. He speaks as if he was watching from afar and while this does benefit the book in some ways, it is also a bit dissapointing. Capote is a person of interest at this point and his involvement in the case is unbelievably fascinating. I would have preferred if he had recounted his experiences with the individuals as, and I’ll mention this later, this would have made many readers more forgiving with his recounting of the story.

What Capote does very well is provide a tapesty of the town. He conveys the suspicion, terror and paranoia of the neighbours exceedingly well. He spends the time providing a background for why we should care about the family and for why such a crime would have been outrageous for the locals.

In the end, I am not overly worried about the truth of the book. I am aware of who Capote was and that the novel was a product of his own investigations. I take what he says with a grain of salt, particularly when scenes arise that Capote could never have known took place (for example, there is a scene where Nancy calls down to her brother from upstairs before she goes to bed but there isn’t any way for Capote to know that happened). Capote, being a man of *clears throat* less than modest beliefs of his qualities, certainly didn’t help with easing the criticism regarding factual correctness. This quote by Esquire in 1966, Phillip K. Tompkins explains my thoughts better than I ever could:

“Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. By insisting that ‘every word’ of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim.”

Despite this, I feel that this is an important book for literary minded individuals to read. The novel defined the true-crime genre and, despite the factual flaws, is written with care and attention to the situation. Most importantly, the novel truly demonstrates the impact of crime by exploring the atmosphere of the town and law enforcement as events unfold. True crime novels (or newspaper articles, for that matter) rarely capture the atmosphere in a post office or the feeling in a crowd as the criminals are driven into town. You do feel it with this book though, as if you are walking through the situations and looking into peoples eyes.

I thought I would include some notes about the book below, as I found it fascinating to research it:

  • The novel was created from 8,000 pages of research notes
  • It is suspected that Capote may have had a relationship with Perry Smith while he was in jail
  • Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were exhumed to establish their connection to the Walker murders. Although no connection was found, some believe they were involved
  • Harper Lee (Author of To Kill A Mockingbird) accompanied Capote on his visit to Kansas
  • Perry and Dick both had the same last meal: shrimp and strawberries

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