Monday, August 01, 2011

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. New York: Vintage, 1993 (1965).

When I was a kid, I somehow managed to confuse and equate Al Capone with Truman Capote (I guess those two last names were similar enough to a child listening in on adult conversation that I never distinguished them). It was years before I discovered that Capote was an author, but by then, the connection in my mind was so strong, I couldn't shake the notion that In Cold Blood was some sort of story about the mob. It makes perfect sense, right? If Truman Capote wasn't Al Capone, then he must have been writing about him.

I, basically, had completely forgotten this case of mistaken identities on my part until I began to read In Cold Blood. When I was in my teens and twenties, I was a frequent visitor to the 364 (true crime) shelves of the libraries I frequented. I always avoided In Cold Blood, because of those mob associations I had with it. Even, once I was working in a library and one of my colleagues told me he was finally reading this classic (if something that was barely 25 years old at the time can be considered a "classic"), and how good it was, I avoided it. I still didn't know much about Capote, and the copy our library owned was old, had no dust jacket, and no cover copy. I couldn't imagine such an "old" book possibly being as exciting as all the new true crime my friends and I passed around, extolling to each other the virtues and scare factors of each new discovery. Funny. I barely remember a single one of those books (except that one Joe McGinnis wrote about the D&D freak who killed his stepfather).

Fast forward 20 years. I've long since seen Tru (great one-man play based on the end of Capote's life); have realized Capote wrote another very famous work, Breakfast at Tiffany's; and have read a number of articles about him, which inspired me to buy some of his works, including In Cold Blood. The movie Capote, which I haven't seen, was a huge hit not too long ago and brought attention to him again. It would be impossible not to know who he is and what In Cold Blood is about, unless you are a complete nonreader or someone who avoids all reviews. Still, I haven't actually read the book.

Litlove suggested we read it together this summer, and we decided to read it in July. That's when I found myself asking the question, "How come I never read this book before?" and was reminded, as though some hypnotist had dredged it up from the depths of my brain, why: I spent the early part of my life thinking it was about something completely different. It's too bad, because the book was so right up my twenty-something alley, you could have found it lying dead there, bullet hole through its head, empty liquor bottle by its side, and I'm quite sure I would have remembered it better than all the others I read.

One night, in November 1959, the community of Holcomb, KS was rocked by the brutal murders of four members of the wholesome Clutter family. With the exception of the fact that Bonnie, the poor wife and mother, suffered from debilitating mental illness that kept her in bed most of the time, they were an "All-American Family," respected and beloved by the members of their community. The father Herb was an ambitious, ethical, disciplined, but, apparently, very likable man whose farm was extremely successful and profitable. Two older daughters had moved out and begun fruitful lives of their own. Nancy, the daughter who, at age 16, still lived at home, was every parent's dream: smart, organized, hard-working, pretty, and the sort who loved her father so much she didn't want to do anything to disappoint him (even to the point of agreeing not to spend so much time with the boy she'd been in love with for four years). The son Kenyon, at age fifteen, was also a very hard worker and what many described as a genius.

If this were fiction, especially in the hands of someone like Ross Macdonald, we would soon have discovered that not all was what it seemed in the Clutter household, that there was a very good reason (well, if there's ever really a "good" reason for murder) these four victims were found bound and shot to death in their home. Perhaps Herb would've proved to be a child-molester involved in some sort of shady dealings. Maybe one of the older sisters, someone who never felt loved by her father, had married a man who didn't love her and who had his sights set on inheriting the family fortune. There might even have been a little sibling incest and some jealous spurned lover. But not here. The family really was pure and innocent (at least, according to Capote's assessment, and why argue with that? He spent six years researching and writing the book). Even the mother's mental illness was far from the "kill-your-family-and-then-shoot-yourself" sort.

Talk about six degrees of separation. These family members were truly victims of less than six degrees of separation. Herb just so happened to have briefly employed a man who happened to meet one of the killers in prison. That killer had befriended the other killer. Believing, based on the testimony of the man who'd worked for Herb and who remained incarcerated, that the Clutter family had a safe full of cash, the two (Dick Hickock and Perry Smith), once out on parole, went in deadly pursuit of that safe and its contents. Capote gives us details of the murder, details of the killers' lives on the run, details of the investigation, and details of the trial and execution of the two men.

Here's what truly surprised me about the book: it terrified me. Me. The one who's read all kinds of true crime accounts. The one who reads and writes ghost stories for fun. The one who's been constantly disappointed by horror movie after horror movie. I didn't even realize I was afraid. The terror sort of sneaked up on me. It wasn't until it was getting close to 10 p.m., and I was engrossed in the book, and Clare the dachshund, who rarely ever barks at anything, suddenly started barking frantically at our back door, that I realized my heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest. Needless to say, I was not too keen on walking the dog before bed that night.

At first, I credited my terror to Capote's writing ability. His attention to detail is remarkable and enviable (floor boards creak, coyotes howl, tumbleweeds scuttle). But, since he alternates between telling us what's going on in Holcomb and what the two murderers are up to, I soon dismissed his writing as the major factor. If you want to terrify me, that's not the way to do it. I need complete mystery and surprise, people lurking in corners when others don't know they're there, bad guys we don't know. Introducing me to the murderers and making them human doesn't typically do it.

I think, ultimately, what got me were two things: one was the setting. I live in a small farming community that sounds quite similar to Holcomb. The other was the whole six degrees of separation factor. It's what got me when I read Thomas Harris's Red Dragon -- how easily a family can be randomly targeted by some lunatic or lunatics. If it was that easy in 1959, with no computers, no Internet, no Facebook, think how incredibly easy it is today. If someone really wants to find and kill you, he or she can, and there's not much you can do about it.

It's ironic, really, that I always skipped over this one when browsing the 364 shelves, not only because I was always looking for something this scary, but also because its biggest claim to fame is that it was a pioneering work of the true crime genre. To be a fan of the genre and not to read it is like being a mystery fan and never reading Poe or Conan-Doyle. The copy I have classifies it as nonfiction/literature. Yet, I've also seen it described as the "original nonfiction novel." It seems Capote liked to mix and match genres. The only other works I've read of his are the "fictionalized memoirs" -- short stories that revolve around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays of his youth.

It's been a number of years since I read those holiday memoirs, and although I remember being impressed by them, I don't remember that much about the writing style. Now that I've read In Cold Blood, I'd say that Capote was much more of a nonfiction writer than a novelist. Although the work's been praised for its novelistic approach to the topic, and yes, I did find novelistic aspects, I'd never mistake him for, say, Patricia Highsmith. He's far more matter-of-fact. No matter how sympathetic all the critics claim he made his characters (and, yes, we do learn the whole sad life stories of the two murderers), I never really felt I was getting much more than the facts. He tried to get us inside their heads, wanted us to explore the psychology, but he didn't really succeed. For instance, he certainly made me think quite a lot about what happens when a highly sensitive child like Perry is exposed to brutal abuse time and again in his childhood, but his dots were connected by very faint, broken lines. He gave us a whole town full of people rocked by the murders, hinted at their terror, their sudden mistrust of each other, but he didn't go far enough with it to illuminate it in any original way.

What he did do was provide me with a riveting news story. I would eagerly have been buying each edition of a daily newspaper with articles written by him that followed the case. In fact, he provided the sort of detailed reporting that seems to be long gone from journalism -- less sensational than today, despite the fact that the story was far more sensational than much of what's reported these days.

Am I going to race out and tell everyone I know to read this book? Highly unlikely. Am I extremely glad I read it? Yes. For someone who writes ghost stories and wants to tap into human fears and abnormalities, it's a must read. Will I ever read more Capote in the future? Absolutely. I'm dying to know if his novels have less of a "reporter-ly" feel to them. (And now I'm off to read what Litlove had to say. You should go there, too, if you haven't already.)


litlove said...

Fantastic review, Emily! I felt scared at the end of the first part, but knowing the two killers would be caught I was able to relax a bit with the rest of the book (like watching a sports match knowing the outcome, which I infinitely prefer). And funnily enough it made me feel better about my chances with the bogeyman, because if it's easy to end up someone's target, it's also highly random and thus very unlikely. I completely agree that Capote did a good job of standing back from the narrative and disappearing into the events he was narrating, and I found that journalistic style intriguing. A bit irritating at times, pleasingly lucid at others.

I'm so glad that we read this. It's one of those books that somehow everyone ought to read, even if they don't fancy it much. Crime is such a headline cliche in so many ways - it's salutory to get inside it like this.

Care said...

It's funny-odd that I only read this because I am from Kansas, that I know the town and similar isolated farms on the flat prairies and that is really what made me want to read this book. And that was 30 years ago. I don't want to read it again. I don't think I need to; these reviews have me reliving the experience of reading it. It truly is a classic.

Carrie K said...

I've never wanted to read the book and I'm not going to either but it's heartening to hear that TC didn't glamorize the murderers.

Murder. I think we're all a razor's edge away from killing or being killed. We think we're so civilized but.......