In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Published in 1966 (Originally serialized in four parts in 1965)
Genre: Creative nonfiction, true crime
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
If asked, none of the citizens of Holcomb could have imagined even the slight possibility of what would occur on November 15th, 1959. In Cold Blood tells of the grisly murder of the Clutter family by ex-convicts Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Written by Truman Capote, the book follows the events of the crime all the way through to the conviction and execution of the murderers. Along the way, however, character studies into the minds of the criminals show the mental instability that was present to drive two men to such a gruesome act.
In Cold Blood begins by making us identify with each member of the Clutter family. The patriarch of the Clutter clan is Herb Clutter, a prominent farmer who is both well liked and well known. He is married to Bonnie, a kind and sensitive woman who has retreated to the rooms of their house due to her fragile temperament. They have four children, two of which live with them; Nancy, who is 16 and a model student and her brother Kenyon, a crafty and smart, if introverted, boy of 15. We also meet the two men who would end the lives of those four innocents. Smith and Hickock are two felons who can’t seem to stay on the right side of the law; this proves to be their undoing.
Capote flexes his prose muscles by foreshadowing the murder in the early sections of the book. Found throughout the chapters, the descriptions of the everyday workings of Holcomb and its citizens are interrupted by reminders of the true subject of the book. Our identification with the Clutter family is built to a point of feeling that we have met them personally, so the shock of the murder hits the reader hard in the chest when it happens.
We are led through the narrative and find pieces of information as they are revealed to those actually involved in the case. Yes, we know who did it because we met the killers in the early chapters, but the actual details of the murders aren’t given to us until the two are caught and confess.
It is easy to characterize criminals by their labels, but Capote does a fantastic job of showing the complex humanity of Smith and Hickock. Smith had a rough childhood filled with abuse and insecurity. Hickock struggles with suppressed pedophilia and is addicted to the thrill of stealing. These two, when Hickock learns from a former farmhand of the Clutters that there might be a safe filled with money in the house, decide to rob the family. However, Smith’s pathological tendency toward violence brings the night to a fatal end.
The story is presented through parallel action that passes back and forth between the investigators and the criminals. This aids the pacing of the book and gives further insight into the minds of both the killers and those searching for them. One such account follows Alvin Dewey, Jr., who was the lead investigator of the case. The stresses of heading such an investigation are made clear through the constant pestering of the locals who either try to give tips or chastise him for not making arrests soon enough.
I am defining this book as creative nonfiction because while its basis is in real life events, the way that Capote writes is far closer to that of a novel than a biography or other work of nonfiction. He uses imagery, metaphor, foreshadowing, and a multitude of other literary techniques to heighten the story and create a more flowing narrative. There are some sections that get into the heads of the people in the story and this brings about some questions about how much of that is the work of Capote as storyteller versus accounts taken from the people themselves. There is a certain amount of artistic license necessary to write the inner monologues of people that we aren’t, so this was something I kept in the back of my mind while reading.
There is one scene in particular that strikes me as most likely fabricated, and it comes at the very end of the book. Dewey is visiting the graveyard and, while visiting the Clutter’s graves, encounters a friend of Nancy Clutters. He then goes on to reflect on the murders and events of the last six years. It is a very poetic and well written scene, and is almost surely made up. While I recognize the necessity for craft, this stuck out as being too artistic to have actually taken place.
In Cold Blood is a well written account of a horrible tragedy perpetrated by two mentally unstable men. The story, though ghastly at parts, gives an account of murders so heinous and impersonal as to be the stuff of nightmares. Capote weaves the story with masterful strokes and creates a compelling read that does credit to his craft.
Verdict: 4 mostly factual narratives out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of mystery and true crime stories, suspense fanatics, those interested in the rationalization of murders by those who perpetrate it, and you!
Not recommended for: The weak of stomach, the Clutter Family, Perry Smith, Richard Hickock, those who live on an isolated farmstead, or people who hate the 1950s and 60’s.
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