In Cold Blood

Posted: March 30, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

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In November 1959, a brutal crime shocks the small farming community of Holcomb in Kansas. In the early hours of a Sunday morning Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon are roused from their slumber by the arrival of two armed men. After restraining the Clutters the invaders proceed to kill them one by one.

The killers are ex-convicts, each with a long criminal history behind them. Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock is ostensibly the man in charge, and his partner is Perry Edward Smith. In demeanour and upbringing the men are very different, yet after meeting in prison they further bond over the murders of the Clutters.

The local authorities in Kansas are perplexed by the brutal, and seemingly motiveless murders. Whilst they investigate Hickock and Smith head south to Mexico, but events will see them soon return to the United States, were they will find their crimes finally catching up to them.

 

I decided to read this in an ongoing attempt to broaden my choice of reading material, and I’ve never read any Capote. Also, I got the book for free as they were handing out copies gratis at the university I work for so it seemed like fate!

After hearing about the events of that November morn, Capote travelled to Kansas, along with his friend, and fellow writer, Harper Lee. Over the course of several years Capote pulled together a detailed examination of the crime, the victims, the law enforcement personal, and of course the killers themselves.

The book was a huge hit when it was released in 1966, and whilst it can be argued that it was far from the first ‘true crime’ novel, it was the novel that saw the genre skyrocket.

I found it an interesting read. In other hands the story could have been recounted in far less words, but part of what makes this so engaging is the texture of Capote’s writing, and the meticulous research he and Lee obviously undertook. Again it is easy to imagine that the minutiae of the Clutter’s lives, and the details of Hickock and Smith’s petty histories, could have been boring, but Capote finds something interesting in the most trivial of things. Mrs Clutter’s fascination with miniature objects, Perry Smith’s addiction to chewing aspirin, even the gossip of the local postmistress. Every person in the book feels like a real person, because of course they were, but another writer could have produced mere caricatures.

Capote begins with multiple narrative strands, on the one hand detailing the final hours of the Clutter family, whilst on the other introducing us to Hickock and Smith as they arrive in town, with homicide on their minds. The Clutters are detailed so vividly that by the time the murders occur I was ready to beg for their lives. They are portrayed as good people, especially Nancy, although Capote does not shy away from some of the less salubrious elements of family life, and some things are implied, quite subtly, to suggest all was not well. From Bonnie Clutter’s obvious depression (despite the hopeful diagnosis that she was just suffering from a trapped nerve) to Nancy’s cat being poised weeks before, and the notion that she keeps smelling cigarettes, even though no one in the house. Then there is Kenyon, the young son and something of a loner (and who, looking at this with 21st Century eyes, might even have been on the Autistic spectrum).

In many ways these tiny mysteries are red herrings, because we the reader know who done it, even if the police are stymied. Capote takes the decision not to show us, at least early on, the events of that morning. As I say, I felt so close to the Clutters that I was glad of this.

After the bodies are discovered Capote changes tack, showing the impact on the townsfolk, who become fearful and paranoid about their neighbours, and the local police and Kansas Bureau of Investigations agents who are frustrated by a lack of motive, evidence, or suspects. Meanwhile we follow Hickock and Smith south of the border, where the reality of life in Mexico doesn’t quite live up to their fantasies.

If the book has a fault (beyond the widely-held view that Capote may have been somewhat economical with some aspects of the story) it is that for the most part it is the killers, not the victims or the hunters, who are centre stage, though this is unavoidable really. Capote’s evocation of the deadly duo is incredibly vivid, to the point where I began to at least empathise with them, Smith in particular, though Capote never lets you forget what each man is capable of and it’s hard to feel too sorry about where they end up.

As a snapshot of rural America before such crimes became commonplace, and of poverty and criminality in the late 1950s, this is an exceptional piece of work, a detailed examination of what was a petty and pointless crime that cost six lives for little gain. Capote is the kind of author whose literary credentials would usually have put me off, but this was a great example of gaining pleasure reading outside one’s comfort zone, and I think I might have to get hold of Breakfast at Tiffany’s now.

 

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Comments
  1. Oh, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is beautiful. read it and you can understand why Marilyn was the original choice to play Holly – Audrey’s Holly is one you can fall in love with and reform, Marilyn’s is one you’ll lose and hope will survive.

    I really liked In Cold Blood. It’s so atmospheric.

    • starkers70 says:

      Embarrassing admission. I’ve never even seen the film version! I am now very tempted to read the book though (am I right in thinking it’s a novella/short story?). I agree about In Cold Blood, I approached it with trepidation but really enjoyed it. Wasn’t what I was expecting.

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