Saturday, April 3, 2010
*In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
I was actually going to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but somehow I misplaced my copy and didn't feel like upending everything so took the next book on the stack.
In Cold Blood is one of those books I've owned forever, and one I take out periodically to reread just because I like it so much. I don't have many of those. Long before there were two biopics about Capote's experiences in Kansas and the writing of this book, In Cold Blood had already captured not only my attention, but my respect as well.
I won't delve into the details of the story because they are so well known it's not necessary to rehash them here. And we all know that with this one work, Capote created a new and at the time rather unique type of quasi-journalistic reporting which led many future writers of true crime to rework their research into novel-like form. But unlike many of the writers of that particular genre, there's nothing over the top or sensational between the covers, neither is there the "just the facts, ma'am" approach. It's an intelligent book that demands participation from its readers.
Part of the reason, I think, that this book works well is that the author works into it some anticipation on the part of the reader. For example, by page 5 we already know that there were "four shotgun blasts that all told, ended six lives," then again on page 13, we find out that that particular day of work for Herb Clutter was going to be his last. And so it goes, with each family member, until we get to the actual killings. Interspersed throughout the story of the Clutters is that of their murderers, and we know that at some point in time the two stories are going to meet up in one tremendous bloodbath. But it's the getting there that is the best of this book -- we have to meet the inhabitants of Holcomb, Kansas, the KBI agent and his family, et cetera et cetera, until Smith and Hickok make that trip down the driveway lined with trees and make their way into the Clutter's home. But even then, Capote doesn't give away what actually happened, but rather moves on to workers coming to do their chores at the Clutter farm, and then the events that led up to the discovery. It's some time before we learn what really happened. The pacing of the book is impeccable. We get to the heart of the matter only after we've spent time with the Clutters, their neighbors, and the killers, getting to know each a bit at a time.
If Capote was trying to evoke some kind of sympathy for the two murderers, he didn't get it from me. There's one spot in the novel where, in trying to make the case that the two killers were legally insane at the time of the murders, someone watching the trial later says something along the lines of "well, I had a tough life, but I didn't kill anyone," or something to that effect. On the other hand, one of the things I like about this novel is the backstory of Hickok and Smith, because I have this inherent need to know what makes people do what they do. During this reread, during the scenes of the trial, I couldn't help but think that today it would be likely that a defense lawyer could probably a) get both of them off for several reasons, or b) get their sentences reduced to spending time in some sort of institution for the criminally insane. But in the 60s, that wasn't about to happen. There's food for thought right there.
In Cold Blood remains one of my favorite books, and whether or not it's real or, as some have criticized, a blend of fiction and reality, it doesn't change anything for me. I loved it the first time I read it and I still do.