on 3 August 2006
Like many others, I came across this book after seeing the film 'Capote'. It's such a good book that I just couldn't put it down. At the same time I really didn't want it to end, purely because of the superb quality of the writing and the knowledge that a book this good only comes along now and again. Capote draws you in and immerses you in the parallel worlds of the Clutters and their murderers Hicock and Smith. It's a credit to Capote that a book published in 1966 about four gruesome murders that took place in small town America in 1959 and where we know who did it and what the final outcome was, can still hold such a powerful sway today.
A great work of narrative non-fiction should be evocative, factually sound and draw you into a world that almost makes you forget your own. 'In Cold Blood' ticks all of these boxes. The Oscar winning film, Capote, covers the laboured, difficult months of the book's original conception and completion. But don't just watch the film. This only gives a sketch of the complexity that unfolds with each page. The book remains highly relevant to our times, touching on themes which are still topical and divisive. And more importantly the book has a profound effect on the reader.
I wish I could say that I had come across this book a long time ago, and am merely recounting the review for the benefit of the new readers who are drawn to it from the film. But the truth is I had no idea of its existence prior to seeing the first trailer. That Capote was a contemporary and often seen as the better of Vidal Gore struck me, as in my mind Gore was well known, and Capote was completely new. But I am extremely thankful to the film for introducing me to this work.
In Cold Blood marks something of an apogee, the successful synthesis of excellence in narrative and mastery of journalism. It is a novel woven with the threads of fact to create a new genre. Although attempted before, here it reaches its true peak of accomplishment. 'In Cold Blood' is the story of a mass killing, the slaughter of an innocent family. It is the story that expands from the original news clipping that so excited Capote's interest, and envelops and involves the reader like very few books.
As an avid reader, and sometime writer, of narrative history, this can be regarded as a benchmark for future endeavour. The journalistic excellence is marked by the time Capote spent in the town, in Kansas, with the killers, with the police and investigators. In short Capote immersed himself in to the world, and cupped out the truth, spilling it onto the page with a literary flourish that draws the reader and immerses them into the same world. The town of Holcomb is no longer a hicksville stop on the Sante Fe express, but a real place filled with recognisable personalities. The predilections and peccadilloes of the townspeople render them as realistic as the people we pass everyday on the street. In short Holcomb becomes familiar and known to the reader.
The Clutter family is dissected with almost clinical precision, so that their characteristics, their personalities, shine through. Their ultimate fate is always hanging over these horrifyingly vivid descriptions, an ominous, portentous gloom that penetrates every page, and keeps the book moving with a pace and gripping interest. But the most horrifyingly drawing of all the aspects is the recreation of the capture, incarceration, trial and ultimate death of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Capote's relationship with the killers, Dick in particular, makes the ultimate, and inevitable, ending all the more tragic.
This is a book for anyone who appreciates writing and English as an art form. It is the brilliant, wonderful synthesis of so many crafts, and Capote shows that he is the master of them all. Anyone who has an interest in reading history, biography or true crime should also make sure this book takes its rightful place at the top of their 'to buy' list - it is simply the best of its kind, rivalled but still unbeaten.
on 8 September 2007
'In Cold Blood' is one of the best books of all time. It should be required reading in all beginning college lit courses, if not in high school. I first read 'In Cold Blood' in high school (in the 80s), and I read it in one sitting- straight through the night- just because I couldn't put it down. I have recently purchased this newer edition, because this book is worth reading again.
To begin with, Truman Capote, for all his notoriety, was an incredible writer, and this book is one of his finest. The gritty and depressing existence of Dick and Perry that leads up to one terrifying night in Kansas is so vividly represented, you feel all the more frightened as you are reading it, because it seems you have become witness to the absolute terror and brutality perpetrated on an innocent family by these two men. Truman Capote not only presents in graphic detail the terror of this night, but he also reveals the personalities of Dick and Perry in such a way that, even though they are despicable human beings, you may feel a twinge of sorrow for them. The birth of each man's anger, and the inability of either one of them to integrate into society, was formed in childhoods of abuse. It truly is amazing how Capote got inside the heads of these pathetic men, capturing the pervasive sadness and despair, bizarrely coupled with hope for a "normal" future. The relationship of Dick and Perry is almost a symbiotic one. Separately, they may not have done what they did, but together, they are lethal. The gullibility of a person, who never felt like he belonged, combined with another person who thinks he needs to exact revenge on society- it's a sick combination of pack mentality and ignorance. Eventually, all of this culminates into a night of terror in Kansas wrought by these two men. The portrayal is so graphic in nature; no one could read it without being rendered silently stunned by the terror of it all. The sadness felt for this totally unsuspecting and wholly innocent family is overwhelming. Certainly there have been similar crimes, but the representation of it by Capote, and the intrinsic knowledge of these two men, makes you feel you had a front row view of the whole thing.
`In Cold Blood' is less about the particulars of that awful crime one terrifying night in Kansas; it is more about the insidiousness of what childhood abuse and feeling disenfranchised can do to a person. It would be easy to focus on the terror and sadness of this massacre, but the brilliance of Capote is that the focus is placed on the murderers and trying to engender compassion from the reader for them. With Capote's vision in writing, he almost gets us there. After the capture and imprisonment of these two men, you can physically feel the fear in their hearts for their own condemnation. Perry's fear of execution is especially haunting. This book is a must read for anyone who likes to read and makes no difference that it was written 40 years ago. It transcends all genres, because even though the story is terrifying, the writing is phenomenal, and you will NEVER forget it.
on 21 May 2003
Although written about a real crime, with real perpetrators and victims, this book is perhaps best read as though a work of fiction. It has the air of a monochrome Hitchcock film, and once past the violence of the murders, takes you into an even bleaker world of abandonment, loneliness, depression and deprivation. It is not an 'entertaining' book per se, but famous and loved for Capote's steely, calm approach to what was a highly sensitive and emotive subject. However, even the author allows a crack in his journalistic resolve as it becomes gradually apparent that he has a great sympathy with the pathetic figure of Perry, despite his crimes.
One of the more interesting things about In Cold Blood, however, is what is NOT made explicit. In several instances, Capote alludes to unease or instability in the Clutter household, but provides insufficient information to direct the narrative away from the focus of Dick and Perry. Perhaps for fear of too much criticism?
In short, In Cold Blood is a book that needs to be slowly savoured, read as a change from over-plotted novels and too-earnest historical books. It's unlikely, however, that you'll return over and over to its morne pages.
on 16 March 2006
Hard to believe that this book was written by the same author who wrote "Breakfast at Tiffany's" but it was. Capote takes you right into the mind of a murderer and tracks the whole desolate affair from the deed itself through to punishment.
It's one of those great books where you are barely conscious of reading the thing. Ideas, events, emotions and images pass in front of you in all their horrifying clarity. A lot of people will come to this novel as a result of the recent movie Capote and may approach it armed with the experience of seeing many films that portray serial killers. But when this book was written in the early 60's, close scrutiny of murder and murderers was both shocking and very disturbing to the reading public.
While the impact of the novel may be reduced to 21st century readers jaded by violence, the quality, incisiveness and skill of Capote's writing conveys the detail, mechanics and mental state of a murderer in a way that has never been surpassed. A masterpiece.
on 18 February 2005
While reading this book one must keep in mind that Truman Capote had two very distinct objects in mind as he worked on this project. First, he wanted to write a Nonfiction Novel and in that area he has succeeded marvelously. Many critics have in fact proclaimed this to be Capote's best work. The author's other intent was to make a statement against the death penalty, an object in which he is less successful.
Capote could not have picked a better case to write a novel about but he could hardly have found two condemned men who would illicit less sympathy. My own faith inclines me to oppose the death penalty but I would be hard pressed to stick to my convictions in this case. The crimes perpetrated by these two were of the worst kind and no matter their backgrounds I could muster little sympathy for either of them. Fortunately, Capote spends relatively little time overtly pleading his political case and the novel is not harmed much in this effort.
The novel itself is nothing short of a masterpiece and will keep the reader on the edge of their seat for almost it's entire length. Capote begins what is probably the first True Crime Novel by introducing the reader to both the Clutter family (the intended victims) and Perry Smith and Dick Hickock (the killers) along with the small Kansas town where the crime would take place. The reader follows the Clutter clan as they live their normal lives in the days before their murder and also rides along as Smith and Hickock plan their crime. From there, one rides the roller coaster through the crime, it's discovery, the getaway, the investigation, and the capture, trial, and execution of the perpetrators. Capote weaves his story in such a masterful manner that there will be times when the reader gets completely caught up in the story just as if he/she were there. While reading this book you will become very aware of every little noise outside your house so it may be better to read it during daylight hours.
I would advise anyone who likes Crime Novels or just good novels to put this book near the top of their to read list. The story is disturbing and a little graphic in places but this is the work of a master wordsmith and he has done his job well. This book deserves to be placed much higher than it is in the pantheon of great works of literature.
on 13 July 2006
This really is essential reading for everyone over the age of about 14. A classic. Truman Capote recounts the story of the murders of four members of the Clutter family, one November night in 1959, and provides details of the events leading up to the murders, what the killers (Dick and Perry) did whilst on the run, their arrest, trial and punishment. I real a lot of books, but this is one of the best I've ever read and I couldn't put it down - despite knowing it doesn't have a happy ending for anyone, I wanted to know what actually happened to the Clutters and why. This book doesn't try to psychoanalyse murders - it tells the story in a factual way, but written like a novel, and it is fantastic, gruesome and tragic because it's true. Six people died as a result of that night - let Truman tell you how.
on 26 July 2006
This is one of these books that everyone tells you is a classic. Personally speaking, that sort of recommendation always puts me off, but having seen and loved the film "Capote" I thought I should give the book a go and boy, am I glad I did!
The story is a harrowing one, and in the hands of a less skilled writer its telling could have become overwrought. Capote's greatest skill is his ability to keep his emotions in check, avoiding making judgements, just telling the facts as best he can and as a result allowing all of his characters to come to life on the page. The Clutter family are not canonized, but instead shown as real people, all with their own problems, hopes and fears. Smith and Hickock, though never excused by Capote, are shown as three dimensional, flawed human beings rather than two dimensional monsters.
Reading this book was an emotional experience. You are left feeling sad and shocked, yet with a sense of hope. It is a book that will stay with me for a long time and one that truly deserves to be called a classic.
on 27 July 2007
It is difficult to argue that this book is not an incredibly powerful piece of work. A valid argument against it may be that it is not, in the truest sense of the word, 'literature'. It's an accurate, detailed account of events which actually happened. With this in mind, it is possible to read the book as an extended article of journalism rather than as a novel.
However, this would be missing the point somewhat. Yes, the book is non-fiction. Yes, it sometimes lingers for long passages on minute technical details - of either the crime itself, or the police investigation. And yes, knowledge that Capote, in his help with the convicted killer's appeals, played an active role in the story himself (albeit unmentioned in his book) lends a slightly surreal aspect to the work. But these points are simply dwarfed by the massive waves of emotion which run throughout the story.
The ironic thing is that Capote brilliantly creates this emotional reponse by writing in a very deliberate, very cold, very un-emotional style. He presents the story to us just the way it happened, fact layered upon fact. It is between these layers that we find the true heart of the book. Hidden in these places are the tragic circumstances that drove Perry and Dick to become men capable of not only committing murder, but of doing so and carrying on their lives seemingly without remorse.
Capote presents only factual events, gleaned from his meticulous research into the case and extensive interviews with those involved. The fact that these events are true makes it all the more unsettling when, as readers, we realise that our sympathies are with the killers. We find ourselves questioning our own perception of ourselves, and our fundamental taken-for-granted values of right and wrong. Indeed, Capote's detached matter-of-fact prose makes us question the very validity of such concepts as "right" and "wrong".
Therefore, the debate as to whether this book is "literature" or "journalism" isn't important. What is important is that this work is one of the most disturbing things you could ever read. Put simply, it will haunt you. It will dig uncomfortably under your skin, and stay there. And, factual or not, that is exactly what good "literature" should do.
Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' is enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to the Oscar-winning film depicting the author's life and work during the writing of this phenomenal piece. At one point in the film, the character Capote makes the statement that when he thinks about how good this book will be, he can hardly breathe. Perhaps it is because it is part of our history now, I don't consider the book to be that good, but it was a work fairly close to groundbreaking in its impact - it was a new genre, the narrative telling of a non-fiction event as if it were a fictional novel.
The narrative centres upon the murder of a Kansas family by two men, Perry Smith and Dick Hicock, who are in many ways far from typical killers, much less cold blooded killers. The family, the Clutters of Holcombe, Kansas, are far from typical victims, nor is this the kind of place such a murder would be expected. Capote does a remarkable job at an even-handed analysis and narrative treatment of all the characters, from the family itself to the townspeople and investigators, as well as the murderers themselves. Perhaps it is because he found an area of identification?
This is a psychological thriller of a sort - at least it would be, were it not a true life tale. Getting into the minds of the criminals and the investigators was no easy task for Capote, but what comes forth on the page is very crisp and insightful reporting, without the kinds of embellishments one might expect from a figure such as Capote when dealing with middle-America folk.
The question of why for the killing is still never fully resolved, despite Capote's attempt to set out all the story and psychological detail. Perhaps this is as strange as the interest Capote took in the subject in the first place, as well as the effect it had on him, and those around him, ultimately - while Capote himself never again finished a major project after this, that is also true of his assistant, Nell Harper Lee, whose book 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (done about the same time as 'In Cold Blood') was also her last major writing.
A worthwhile book in many ways.