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In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder And Its Consequences (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
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About the Author
Truman Capote was born in New Orleans in 1925. He is the author of many highly praised books, including A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949), The Grass Harp (1951), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), In Cold Blood (1965), which immediately became the centre of a storm of controversy on its publication, Music for Chameleons (1980) and Answered Prayers (1986), all of which are published by Penguin. Truman Capote died in August 1984.
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Like so many great things that are created, this was inspired by something quite inconspicuous; a one column story which appeared in a newspaper on November, 16th, 1959, about the murder of the Clutter family on Rivery Valley Farm in western Kansas. This news story sent Truman Capote out to Kansas to investigate and resulted in him creating, arguably, the first ‘nonfiction novel.’
Although the subject matter of this book is, obviously, a tragedy, it is wonderfully written, with great sympathy to everyone involved and a very modern examination of the reasons for the crime. Indeed, early crime books/magazines tended towards the sensational and shocking; whereas this is much more analytical and interested in character and motive. “In Cold Blood,” is the second best selling true crime book of all time, beaten only by the brilliant, “Helter Skelter,” so it keeps good company.
Like, “Helter Skelter,” this book is obsessed with detail. “In Cold Blood,” is a work of great research and took years to write. Capote sets the scene well; taking us through the last day of the Clutters lives and introducing us to this respected, and respectable, family. Although, later in the book, the author focuses on the killers, their backgrounds and their motivations, he is respectful to the victims and, by introducing them to the reader first, he enables us to feel sympathy for them before anything else. However, the bulk of the book does look at the men who are arrested, and tried, for the murders in great detail. He examines their past, their relationship and how they were caught, plus what happened to them afterwards.
Although these events happened a long time ago, this book does not feel particularly dated. The reasons behind such crimes are, sadly, still much the same as they were then. Although I cannot say this was an easy, or comfortable, read, it is really a brilliantly written book and I am glad that I finally read it.
An upstanding, hard-working family from Holcomb, a small community in the wheat-plains of western Kansas, were brutally murdered by person or persons unknown, in November 1959. The Clutter family, Herb, church-going, teetotal dairy cattle-farmer, his rather delicate but equally upstanding wife Bonnie, and his two children, 16 year old Nancy, vivacious, popular, responsible, admired, and her bookish 15 year old brother Kenton were all shot at point-blank range, having previously been tied up. Herb Clutter also had his throat cut before being shot.
Inevitably, investigation first turned to possible personal and local motive, but there was no evidence at all to suggest this. The community was a tight-knit, respectable, co-operative one, and all the Clutters were warmly regarded by their colleagues, peers, friends, family and neighbours
“The hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbours and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was amongst themselves”
The conclusion was that this might have been a burglary which went wrong. The idea of this definitely ruled out local involvement as everyone knew that Clutter did not keep money or valuables in the house, but banked it
The crime seemed to point towards something of a growing trend – murder without any real personal motive. There have always been such, in times past, but, for obvious reasons, they were more likely to take place in crowded cities, where perpetrators could quickly vanish amongst the hordes. Such crimes in isolated areas, carried out by perpetrators completely unknown, where victim and murderer had no direct connection with each other, must have been comparatively rare before owning cars became common, so that going on the run and being able to hide anywhere, became easily possible.
The perpetrators of this crime, after an intense investigation, were found to be a couple of small time crooks, who had met whilst serving time, far away from the scene of the crime. The successful solving of the crime, not to mention the capture of the pair, also depended on chance as much as skill, and the existence of mass-media (radio, TV) to highlight awareness of the crime and the search. The motive was indeed a robbery gone wrong, with the murderers, neither of whom had ever met Clutter, unaware that this rich man did not have a safe in his house (as they had assumed he would)
Truman Capote’s account of the case, originally serialised in The New Yorker, was rather a literary, ground-breaking one. The book was extensively researched from documents and interviews, but Capote structured this like a converging story, rather than a linear account. The structure, the language and the shaping are that of story, not journalistic reportage. Indeed, levelled against the book was criticism (particularly locally) that some dialogue had been invented, and small human touches and potent images had been invented.
Interestingly, his researcher on the book was his friend, and later, admired author, in her own right, Harper Lee. She is one of the two people Capote dedicates the book to.
The crime was indeed a gory one, but Capote withholds the gory details until near the end of the book, Instead, he paints a low-key, un-histrionic , unheroic, un-villainous picture of all the individuals associated with the case – this includes the victims, the murderers and all connected in the investigation, bringing to justice, and the community in which these events happened.
The author avoids operatic, overblown rhetoric. The reader (well, this one) has the sense of an author listening for a way to tell a shocking story in a simple, measured way, allowing the events themselves to be revealed in a way which suggests they have objective existence, and are not driven by authorial agenda. Nonetheless, the choices he made do of course shape the reader’s own perceptions. This is not a mere recounting of facts, but the reader is not being punched by the writer’s persona. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Capote did feel a kind of fascination with one of the perpetrators, whose status as half Cherokee, half-Irish, child of a broken marriage, whose mother was an alcoholic, and who spent part of his childhood in a brutal care home, marked his card, somewhat from the start. A classic outsider who FELT like an outsider to himself. Capote, himself an outsider, clearly felt some kind of – if not sympathy, than an identification of ‘outsiderness’
Unlike a more modern trend in some ‘true crime’ writing, Capote avoids a ramping up of the gory details of the undoubtedly gory crime. He is not trying to titillate or be gratuitous, Instead, there is a cool restraint. There is of course no ‘excuse’ for the crime, but there is a recognition that the fact that these types of crime occur shows ‘something’ about human nature. Because the writer does not go the route of ‘aberrant, demonic, despicable, bestial monsters’ the reader is uncomfortably forced to acknowledge this too is the possibility of human choice, human behaviour.
In the 3 succeeding chapters, the police are looking for these 'persons unknown' until the answer presents itself. And throughout we learn more of the killers, though not enough to comprehend their motivation.
Shocking and highly readable.
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