On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.
One mid-November night in 1959, four members of the wealthy Clutter family were tied up, shot and killed in their home. Herb Clutter, a successful rancher, along with his wife and two children Nancy and Kenyon, were found dead the next morning when friends arrived to catch a lift to church. The book explores how this horrific crime affected the surrounding community, and how the authorities locally and across the US worked tirelessly to catch the culprits. Alongside events in Kansas, Capote simultaneously offers us the story of the murderers themselves. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock both had charismatic personalities and complicated back stories, and after the Clutter murders managed to evade the law for over a month and a half before they were finally captured, jailed and taken to trial for their crimes. They were hanged in April 1965.
So far, so Crimewatch. What really makes this book special is how much heart and soul Capote pours into it. His eye for a good story and his focus on people rather than process render In Cold Blood as gripping and enjoyable as a novel. The amount of painstaking work he must have put into bringing this sweeping story together is genuinely awe-inspiring. For me, there was also the intriguing fact that Capote was known to have become close to Perry Smith during his research - how much did that skew how he was portrayed? It was certainly fun to wonder as I was reading.
Smith and Hickock sit right at the heart of the book, and it is their humanity that provided the most disturbing and thought-provoking aspect of my reading experience. I found myself reflecting on the complexities of law and order, and the validity of the death penalty. I began to consider the murderers more closely, to ponder whether one was more guilty than the other and what made them so - their mental health, their level of participation, their attitude? There were moments where Hickock melted into a normal American boy, and many times where I felt genuine sympathy for Perry and quite liked him - until some little word or gesture reminded me exactly what I was reading and what he had done.
In short, In Cold Blood has everything I want from a book: intriguing characters, an exciting narrative, thought-provoking themes and superb writing. The fact that the entire book is a work of true crime only adds to its brilliance, because every detail, movement and conversation had to have been so meticulously researched and slotted together to create this perfect piece of storytelling. I now have the 1967 film adaptation to watch and two more Capote/Hickock/Smith movies to track down (Capote and Infamous) - and In Cold Blood is taking its place as one of my favourite reads of 2012! Highly recommended.
I put it in quotation marks because, actually, in the United States, the rate of murders and other such violent crimes have been decreasing for two decades (2009 was declared the safest year since 1968). But it'd be hard to see that looking at the "true crime" and the "procedural" genres. Every violent crime that makes it onto the news results in a few book deals, there's whole channels dedicated to dissecting the trials of such photogenic crime, the procedurals that have occupied vast majority of CBS's primetime schedule for the past 10 years, and I could go on, but I will illustrate it with a single example: Law and Order. Law and Order is not only a show that ran on NBC for 20 years. It's a franchise— that promises the audience a murder, its investigation and trial, and a satisfying resolution in 45 minutes. And while the specifics are limited to the L & O franchise, the attitude is not. It's has indeed saturated the culture to become a genre, aka constructed of expected tropes— whether the genre is delivered through a segment on 60 Minutes or a Millenium novel.
And from that context, it feels almost impossible for me to see either Call Northside 777 or In Cold Blood, which hails from 1965, on their own terms. There's actually a ten minute sequence in the middle of Northside dedicated to a lie-detector test, in which the film explains both to the wrongly-convicted man and the audience what a lie-detector is, how it is conducted, and its legal relevance. It's kind of amazing.
In Cold Blood, hailing seventeen years later isn't quite so quaint, but it was still a mighty struggle to surmise what contemporary audiences saw in it. This was the book that scared people into locking their doors at night? This is "chill[ing]" and "harrowing"? This is the book that has "poignant insights into the nature of American violence"? Because it's rather hard to see any of that from the actual text. Having established what isn't there, what is there?
The good: I appreciate that Capote spends time fleshing out the Clutter Family beyond their status as "victims", and his florid writing style is pleasant, if at times, rather long-winded. In Cold Blood in general is split fairly evenly between the townspeople (including the Clutters)/law enforcement investigating the case and the murderers (who are identified from fairly near the beginning of the narrative).
The bad: Capote does with the journalistic conventions of acknowledging his own presence on the proceedings and citing his sources. Arguably this is acceptable "creative nonfiction" writing, is intended to "smooth" out the patchwork of information Capote used, and involve the reader more deeply in the storytelling. However, as I was reading In Cold Blood, I found the absence of these acknowledgments incredibly distracting— at one particularly laughable passage, Capote actually cites himself as "a journalist with whom [the convicted] corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit" rather than acknowledge getting the interview personally. Furthermore, these omissions made me question how "creative" Capote was getting. Capote clearly shows a strong positive bias towards one of the convicted perpetrators over the other, and without acknowledgment of how that could've been a subjective factor in his writing process, it only serves to call into question all the supposed objective truth he was portraying. I haven't studied the case myself, so I cannot confirm these suspicions (but I have read complaints from those who have, who say Capote invented a few scenes and conflated several characters for storytelling convenience), but they all contributed to a rocky reading experience.
And ultimately, it all circles back to my original difficulty. I didn't really see the point of In Cold Blood, outside of Capote's extreme empathy for one of the murderers (which as I have said, went unexplored and unacknowledged). It's not a particularly extra-ordinary crime; the narrative says itself there were several similar crimes happening around the country in that time period. It's not a particularly ordinary crime either; the perpetrators had mental health problems which were the primary motivators for the crime, and their victims were chosen largely randomly. It's not a very important crime; Capote throws in a last-minute "reform the insanity plea" appeal near the end of the story, but as it is thrown in rather haphazardly and goes against the grain of the narrative thread he has spun before, it is largely dismissible. It doesn't feel like much of anything, to be honest, and perhaps that is completely a side effect of murder-culture on my psyche.
I tend to do everything physically possible in front of the television. Sometimes, if especially compelled, I reach for the mute button. In Cold Blood compelled me to turn off the entire TV.
Prior to reading it, I’d sometimes thought of this book and cynically (ignorantly) assumed it was an over-hyped tale about some sick losers who placate their frustrated vanities through murder.
However, it soon dawned on me that Capote was doing much more - he hauntingly contrasts the wholesome banality of God-fearing rural Midwesterners with the chaos of underclass vagrants who - along with their demons, pipe-dreams and vices - drift whichever way the wind blows.
These two types of people, so different in temperament and background, come together one night in a demented scene of envy, futility, helplessness, self-disgust, desperation and, of course, murder.
I’m two-thirds of the way through. I no longer even disrespect this riveting gem of a book by bringing it into the TV room. Upon finishing it, I will add it to my small private shelf consisting solely of books which I permanently keep for multiple readings.
The second problem I had with this book is that the author goes off on too many tangents, describing the histories of characters that are entirely irrelevant to the central case of the story, giving the book a bloated feel to it. At some points, it feels like the author is stalling, making the reader wait for what he truly wants to know, which is the motives for the murders and how they happened. Yet even this is unsatisfying, as nothing truly unexpected or suprising is discovered in the explanation of how the central events took place.
Yet the way the book is set up, this is what the reader is led believe he will be given: we are first introduced to the murdered family and the murderers on the day leading up to the killings, then taken to the day after the murders, making it seem as if the whole point of the book is to find out why they happened. Or, at least, how the crime is solved. But even this is unsatisfying, as it occurs through no expertise on the part of the police.
Capote reconstructs the lead-up to the gruesome murders and the aftermath. In the lead-up, Capote cross-cuts intermittently between descriptions of the routine domestic life of the Clutters in their small farming community near Holcomb and the transient lives of the drifters Smith and Hickok - what's chilling is their humaness in the picture Capote draws - as they drift cross-country towards Holcomb. The aftermath comprehensively covers the search for and apprehension of the killers and their subsequent trial and incarceration on death row.
Capote's case-study is concerned not just with the who of the crime but the why, probing into every facet of the lives of the killers, the background influences that shaped them, taking us into their minds to give us the opportunity to get to know them, exploring the psyche of the criminal mind to discover the psychological motivation that can turn men into monsters. A forerunner of classic true-crime titles such as "Fatal Vision" by Joe McGinnes, "Daddy's Girl" by Clifford Irving and "Blood and Money" by Thomas Thomson, "In Cold Blood" is itself, an American classic and one of the best American books of the 20th Century
BkC13) IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote: As good as it gets. Only really good thing he wrote.
The first statement being unassailable, I'll focus on the second.
Breakfast at Tiffany's is fun, and a little bit risqué, but deathless literature? Even a well-made novella? Not so much. Other Voices, Other Rooms? A roman à clef that, because it dealt with hoMOsexuals (plural) in 1948, was much tutted over and hollered about. Reading it in the 21st century, one is struck at just how dreary adolescence as a subject of fiction almost always is, the queer factor being so very much less of an issue than it was back then when mastodons roamed Manhattan and giant krakens swam the seas.
His short stories, A Christmas Memory in particular, are sometimes brilliant. It was his métier. He excelled at it, and In Cold Blood is the anomaly in his career. The fact that he reputedly had a sexual affair with Perry Smith, and the fact that his cousin Harper Lee was deeply involved in his creation of the book, make me wonder if he wasn't simply a front for Harper Lee's second novel publication. He would have been better able to benefit from it, being completely Lee's opposite when it comes to publicity, and his personal emotional stake in the tale and its outcome would doubtless appeal to Lee's apparent help-the-underdog bias. Speculation, and without insider information, I grant you. But I can't help feeling the beauty and the shimmering perfection of In Cold Blood, coupled with the complete absence of any further publications from Capote after this book, are...suggestive.
None of which really matters a lot. In Cold Blood is excellent. Read it with the full expectation of readerly pleasure.
Capote's description of small town Kansas is very accurate and realistic. The emotions and reactions of the populace are presented a format where they are not only a factual interview from the person, but also Capote imparts the emotion which the subject is imparting. We also get a unique perspective of the criminals themselves presented in a very believable manner.
With this book, Capote basically created his own genre; taking the true crime story to another level altogether with beautiful prose and excellent story-telling. It is truly a masterpiece and a fine work of modern literature.
When I finally decided to read it (ignoring the slight resistance I felt), it only took me a few pages to be completely engrossed. Capote’s account of the brutal killings of a wealthy farmer and his family, the investigation, the killers’ roaming the Midwest after the deed, the trial and aftermath IS meticulous and somewhat slow-going. But more than that it’s haunting, beautifully written and full of sharp observations of human behaviour. Capote carefully paints moods and scenarios, from the impact on the small village after a horrible crime nobody has yet been arrested for, over images of the vast landscape of West Kansas itself to sharp character sketches that, while made with a few strokes, still feel very authentic. And the portraits of the young killers themselves, both frightening enigmas and very very human, will surely stay with me for a long time.
Disturbing, intelligent, crisp and empathic, this was both a true page-turner and food for thought. And, since Capote takes great care not to appear himself in the book anywhere (indeed, he even refers to the person conducting the interviews with the murderers on Death Row as ‘a journalist’), having seen the film Capote becomes something of an added value, an interesting meta level to ponder at will.
Easily one of the best reads of the years for me.
This work can be used most readily to examine writing style and technique, as it contains some rather dense passages that can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives. The book does contain some graphic violence, but the work itself is a stunning example of storytelling at its finest, and students will find this to be a rewarding and fascinating reading experience.
This book was highly recommended to me by friends on my other book sharing site. On of them even has stated, repeatedly, that this is her ‘favorite true crime book of all time’. As you can see from the star rating, I thought it was O.K. nothing special. I’m almost afraid to go back there and say, “You know that great book? I thought it was meh.
We get a brief history of the victims and murderers. Even why the murders were committed. A detailed account of the day leading up to the murders, what the victims and murderers did. Word for work reports of interviews, and letters written, auto-biograpies written by the defendants for a court appointed psychiatrist.
The book seemed to move along as a measured pace, dragged in places and it never really drew me in, maybe it is the author’s style that didn’t attract me. It was informative and factual. I can’t really say I found it interesting.
Not the worst, but definitively not a must read.
I remember being as absorbed by reading 'Helter Skelter', and the writer was no doubt influenced by Capote, who did it first.
Maybe the wonder of this work is that when you are through, you realize you have had a number of ephiphanies during the reading. One of those I had was understanding how Perry, by himself, couldn't have hurt a cell on any of the Clutter's bodies, but under the goading of his dominent (quasi) lover, Dick, he became the instrument of murder (and vengenance for both of them).
This book is more than just another telling of a story. It belongs in the top 100 of literary masterpieces in the English speaking world because it creates understanding and empathy with the dark side of our natures. This work was first read by me the year it came out, and began a life-long fascination with seriel killers.
This is a much better book though, Capote exhaustively interviews everyone involved with the brutal mass murder of a family in rural 50's Kansas and then recreates the events that led to the crime, the crime itself, and how the murders affected the murderers and the community.
Capote tells the crime and its fall out as a story, slowly building up the characters of the doomed family and their almost conscience free killers. He does not dwell on the murders themselves in a glorifying fashion as many true crime writers seem to, but takes you deeply into the day to day lives of all the people involved.
This is a sad and disturbing tale, the two murderers seem so comfortable with their crimes, so blase about what they have done. In researching their backgrounds we might expect to find all the things that we know makes up the psyche of a killer, the poverty, a miserable and abused childhood, poor education and lack of opportunites in life, but whilst one of the boys ticks all the boxes in this respect, the other just seems to be a normal boy who simply chooses to do evil, this is the uncomfortable truth that Capote confronts us with.
Capote's research assisstant for this novel was Harper Lee who had won acclaim acclaim with 'To Kill A Mockingbird', perhaps that should be the next on my classics hit list.
Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock.
This is their story, what preceded that fateful day and what transpired until justice was done.
The book reads like a newspaper or court report, imparting the events with clarity. It is also sensitive. It is written in many voices.
An enthralling read if sometimes disturbing read
The first thing that made me really like this book was just how much research Capote did to write this. It was amazing how much these people, especially the murderers, opened up to him and told him everything. There was no stone un-turned in this book.
I can also see just what the appeal of this case was. The fact that the perpetrators didn't even know the family makes this rare, since the majority of murders are committed by someone the victim knows. It was also fascinating to read into the psychology of the these two men and how they reacted to their crime. There was a lot of insight into what their thought process was during the whole ordeal, and while I didn't sympathize with them necessarily, it actually humanized them a little bit. We get see where they came from, what their childhood was like, etc.
I also feel that Capote did a great job of capturing just what kind of affect this horrible incident had on the town of Holcomb. Everyone who knew the Clutter family and even those who were not closely associated with them were affected in some way. It was also interesting to see just how the suspicion that the killer was among them almost ruined the closeness of the neighbors in this small town. We not only got a look at the lives and thoughts of the men who committed the crime but insight into how this kind of tragedy can cause strife in an entire community.
This was a compelling read and was actually hard to put down sometimes. Even though you know how everything ends, you are still engrossed in the lives of those involved which keeps you reading. It was very well done and I highly recommend it.
The author claims that “all the material in this book not derived from my own observations is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time.” Fair enough, though that does not of course make it the ‘true account’ of the subtitle, and Penguin rightly class it as fiction of the crime/mystery variety, rather than non-fiction because the author has reconstructed and arranged the events and personalities and imagined dialogue, in such a way as to make the most effective story-telling, using the conventions of the novel. Taking a true story and working it up as a novel is a perfectly valid approach which has been brilliantly repeated many times, in powerful novels such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (10/10), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (10/10) or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (9/10). If your plotting/storytelling gift is weak, as I suspect Truman Capote’s was, but your writing and research skills are strong, then taking a real story and embroidering it into a novel is a perfectly valid approach. Truth, as they say, if often stranger than fiction.
Another potential reason for controversy is the picture of America that emerges from the story, which may well enrage some readers. Although the Clutter family who were murdered by amoral killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are portrayed as an almost unbelievably good all-American family living ‘the American dream’, Capote manages to turn that dream into a nightmare – and you get the feeling he does so, not innocently, because that’s the direction the facts of the story takes him, but all too knowingly, because that’s the story he wants to tell. There’s a well-suppressed sarcasm here, a cynicism he keeps well buried, because this is supposed to be a true story. Capote exposes humbug, whether it’s about those all-American folks’ supposed classlessness, their love of justice and fairness, of religion, of capital punishment, just about everything.
For example, look at that love of justice and fairness which everyone openly espouses. Harold Nye, the cop, says to Dick Hickock at the start of his interrogation, “Of course, you’re under no obligation to answer our questions, and anything you say may be used against you in evidence. You’re entitled to a lawyer at all times.” But does he get a lawyer? Not until he had effectively signed his death warrant... and then, what an effective lawyer...
Oh yes, and look at Capote’s demolition of American claims to classlessness:-
“Without exception, Garden Citians deny that the population of the town can be socially graded (‘No sir. Nothing like that here. All equal, regardless of wealth, colour, or creed. Everything as it ought to be in a democracy; that’s us.’)... but of course, class distinctions are as clearly observed, and as clearly observable, as in any other human hive.”
And observe them Capote duly does, clearly, sharply, explicitly, minutely.
Capote’s presumed opposition to the death penalty is quietly promoted, without hysteria or over-statement; in fact, in a very cold-blooded manner, he simply relates what happened.
And perhaps most controversial of all is his depiction of the murderers themselves. These were unquestionably savage, unspeakable, cold-blooded crimes of the very worst type, but Capote depicts the murderers not as the animals that the popular press would show. He reveals them as real people, with hard backgrounds, who went wrong for reasons you can understand, war service, difficult parents, alcoholism in the family... Perhaps that’s the most controversial part of all.
Yes, In Cold Blood is powerful stuff indeed, all the more so for being based on a real story, written after due research, carefully, accurately, fully, analytically... Written, in fact, in cold blood.