Wednesday, August 3, 2011

REVIEW: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Originally published 1966. This edition published 2004 by Random House/Blackstone Audio. Narrated by Scott Brick. Nonfiction.

In Cold Blood is a true classic of American nonfiction; in my opinion it should be required reading for anyone interested in American literature, period.

Truman Capote, author of such seminal fiction as Breakfast at Tiffany's and Other Voices, Other Rooms, turned his hand to journalism for the New Yorker magazine when he traveled to Kansas to report on the murder of a wealthy farm family, the Clutters, in the town of Holcomb. Two films have been made about his trip, which he undertook with fellow writer Harper Lee: Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006); there have been film adaptations of the book itself as well. But none of these are any substitute for this masterful book.

The book is structured in two overlapping circles. In plain, unvarnished prose, Capote alternates between the story of the murder and the story of the murderers, building tension slowly as we see the doomed family slowly careening towards their encounter with their killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The details of the murders aren't revealed until Smith and Hickock are caught but the discovery of the bodies by neighbors is one of the most haunting passages I've ever read.  From there, Capote rejoins the fugitives and the investigators as they begin their own slow-motion collision. Finally, Capote covers the trial, imprisonment and eventual fate of the killers, ending on a note of poetry.

Capote fleshes out every person mentioned in the book, just about; he goes into great detail about the Clutters, their character, their life together and their place in the community. It's a little hard to imagine how much research must have gone into the book to obtain the level of detail Capote shares. And he gives the investigators a similar treatment, but he saves his most thorough journalism for the killers. We learn a great deal about Smith and Hickock's background, psychology and motivations; their journey before and after the murders is recounted meticulously.  He also spends time discussing criminal psychology, cases similar to the Clutter murders and the role of the death penalty. He doesn't quite create empathy for the killers but he tries to show the reader how such a crime, and how such killers, might come to be.

I listed to the audio version of the book over a two-week period. Scott Brick does a great job narrating, building suspense and bringing the narrative to life. Certain production choices, like where to end a disc, add to the drama. And Brick has a great voice for true crime. I read the book in print several years ago; I think it works best on the page but with Brick's skillful narration, audio was a fine way to experience it too.

In Cold Blood is one of my all-time favorite books. Besides being fascinating, thought-provoking and well-crafted, it's a page-turner like no other. I can't say enough good things about this incredible, essential book. If you're not a regular reader of literary books, you owe it to yourself to make time a few times in your life for a work of this caliber. Otherwise, why read?

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

31 comments:

Anna said...

I've been wanting to read this ever since I read Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers. Looks like I'll have to make time for this one and hopefully sooner rather than later.

bookspersonally said...

I read this not too long ago- agree, the details are so impressive and the overall feeling of the book very suspenseful, yet Capote really doesn't insert himself at all into it. Very different than modern journalism.

Marie said...

Bookspersonally, YES! That's one of things that often irritates me about contemporary nonfiction- the author seems to think the book is about the author and not about the subject. Who cares about your adventures in library? Tell me the STORY already!

reviewsbylola said...

One of my favorite books ever. I think I am due for a reread!

JoAnn said...

I loved this book... my next reread will be a listen!

Aths said...

I really enjoyed this when I read this one couple of years back. It's really very well-written and engrossing, in spite of knowing what will happen!

stacybuckeye said...

I liked this one when I read it last year. I can still remember the visuals I got from reading how the bodies were found. Still haunting over a year later!

stacybuckeye said...

I liked this one when I read it last year. I can still remember the visuals I got from reading how the bodies were found. Still haunting over a year later!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I am an avid fan of true crime, and this is as good as it gets. I loved Capote, and I guess it even pushes more of my buttons knowing that he was obsessed with Perry Smith. Once you know that, it gives you a whole new perspective on his recounting of this horrible murder case. I REALLY need to listen to Brick narrate this one.

pagesofjulia said...

Can't tell you how excited I am to see you write about this book, and so glowingly! I have long had an interest, more so lately as you're the second blogger to review it positively this week (!!) - and already had the audiobook, read by Brick, that you've complimented, sitting on my desk. (I'm trying to finish the audio of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's not going well.) Can't wait to start it. Thanks for being part of the odd serendipity that has me starting this book any day now!

pagesofjulia said...

And lol, bookspersonally and Marie... sometimes the nonfiction author's journey in his/her own research subject is what *makes* the book for me. I can certainly think of negative examples, but some of my favorite nonfiction includes some self-involvement. Especially on some topics, it can feel false or dishonest to pretend total neutrality; some subjects are difficult to get immersed in without having a personal reaction, and to get the whole story, I need to know how the author felt. Does that make sense?

Marie said...

PagesofJulia, that totally makes sense but for me, it seems like there's a trend towards greater authorial interference, or the supposition that the author's story is just as interesting as the one he or she is covering.THE LOST CITY OF Z is a recent example. I found Fawcett's story fascinating and absolutely did not care about David Grann's trip to REI to get supplies, for example. Sometimes it's useful to know the author's perspective (I guess) but sometimes it just seems self-indulgent and even a little narcissistic.

Zibilee said...

This is a book with a big reputation, and one that I have been sort of intimidated by for such a long time! I am not sure why that is, when it seems like everyone loves it. I think an audio version of this book might just hit the right spot with me, and I am glad that I have read this review and seen so many positive comments about it. It's made me want to give this one a try, after years of avoiding it. Thanks for the superb and enthusiastic review on this book. I will have to let you know how it goes!

bermudaonion said...

It's been years since I read this but I remember being engrossed in it from start to finish. This is probably the best true crime book ever written.

heidenkind said...

This is definitely one of the better books I had to read in high school. My mom read it, too, and we have completely opposite interpretations of it.

Marie said...

Heather, I hope you do- I think you'll love it. I can understand being intimidated but it's wonderful and absolutely approachable once you get started! You'll be hooked from page one!

lifeonthecutoff said...

I read this, many moons ago, as required reading in high school, in the late '60s, not long after it was first published. My mind is blurry now as to whether it was for my American Lit or Sociology class. My memory is still quite excellent, however, about the book, which kept me up all night on a school night reading it, and many nights thereafter from the impression it left on me.

Thank you for this great review of an American classic.

pagesofjulia said...

Marie, no argument. It can go both ways. Just noting my appreciation of author-as-character, when done right> :)

Carin Siegfried said...

I love this one too! Anyone who hasn't yet should put it at the top of his/her list!

Amanda said...

I read this back in high school and was shocked and fascinated by it. It was so well researched and written. I thought he wrote the murderers very well - not demonized or sympathetic - just that's what happened.

Wow, just read bookspersonally's comment and I totally agree. Leave yourself out of it!

girlssentaway.com said...

Great discussion! Rebecca Skloot, author of the bestselling "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," had no intention to become part of the story. She tried to write it without inserting herself, but it didn't work. Skloot has followed an important rule that every nonfiction writer should follow. See fifth question from the end of this interview: http://www.niemanstoryboard.org/2010/07/16/rebecca-skloot-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-interview-narrative/

JaneGS said...

I have wanted to read this book for years, and had heard it was magnificent. Your review certainly underlines that feeling. I enjoy audio books a lot, and can see how this book in particular would lend itself to that treatment.

Thanks for a terrific review--you really captured what worked in the book for you and why Capote is in the pantheon of American writers.

caite said...

Wow, that is an oldie. Published after I was born, but too young for even my mother to yet me read it.

and sadly I have never read it since.

Care said...

Great review. So Scott Brick reads this. Hmmm. (I've read the book many years ago; not sure if I am up to listening to it since I usually am driving when I listen to an audio book. Who knows where I would end up? )

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Yes to everything in your review. I was amazed by this book when I read it. One thing I remember being struck by was how much tension Capote was able to build, even though the reader knows the murders are going to happen.

The discussion about authors in their books is interesting too. If I remember correctly, Capote does sort of put himself in this one at the end (some references to "a journalist" or "the journalist," right?). He does set some precedent to the idea of immersion journalism, even if it's more opaque than a lot of what we see now.

Marie said...

Kim, I don't remember that but you may be right. will have to check my paper copy! :-)

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I read this one over 10 years ago now when I started working in bookstores. I felt I had to catch up on all of the stellar novels out there that I had never read before.

Kathleen said...

This book really is a masterpiece. I agree with you that it should be required reading. I can't imagine how writing this book affected Capote. He got so close, almost too close, to Smith. I think his experience with writing this book haunted him the rest of his life. I will definitely reread this one in the future.

pagesofjulia said...

girlssentaway, thanks for the link; interesting. Thanks for bringing up Henrietta/Skloot, too. That example was one of the ones I had in mind when I said I really appreciate the insertion of author in nonfiction when relevant. (Also The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which I found to be a pretty similar book to Henrietta.) Skloot's reason, given in that interview, is exactly what I had in mind. (Marie, sorry to slightly highjack your comments!)

pagesofjulia said...

Marie, I've recently started Brick's reading of In Cold Blood, and am loving it! Thanks!

Amy said...

I thought this was an amazing book. It's long but I didn't think it ever dragged. Capote did a terrific job with the characters particularly the killers. It was a fascinating, remarkable book. I really enjoyed your review!