Wednesday, August 3, 2011
REVIEW: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
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?
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.