In Cold Blood. Truman Capote.

Capote, Truman, In Cold Blood. Random House New York 1966. NF; 11/15.

This book deserves its reputation as the founding true crime novel, it’s a gripping page-turner but also disturbing to read beyond the gory details. I didn’t understand how the narrative structure and transparent style were maintaining suspense until near the end. In Cold Blood has been criticized for factual inaccuracies, but for me that criticism misses what this kind of so-called nonfiction is. There are thousands of homicides every year in the US, but only a handful over the years give rise to anything like this.

Of course the murders were terrifying. Capote doesn’t give us the details until well into the story, so that we don’t understand until well on for example the horror of bound and gagged family members waiting their turn. But an almost worse horror dawns as we discover that none of the members of that very nice normal rural American family needed to die at all. It was the special coincidence of the characters of the two killers that started a cascade of shooting four people in the face. Why did Perry Smith cut Herb Clutter’s throat in the first place? He had realized even if Dick Hickock hadn’t that there was no money in the house, and Dick probably wouldn’t have killed anyone if Perry (who stopped Dick from raping the young girl) by his impulsive knife attack (“Here goes”) hadn’t made the rest of the murders necessary.

The title of course refers to the executions as much as to the crime. But we don’t directly get the author’s point of view here either. An impartial invitation to consider the issues is implicit in the transparent telling of the story. Journalists at Smith’s hanging kibitz, acting tough in the face of what they are about to witness:

Many a man can match sob stories with that little bustard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.

Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.

There is a lot of speculation about Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, but I wasn’t impressed with the idea that Smith was any more prominent as a character than many others. Like the author probably (nerdy, sensitive, diminutive, misunderstood, creative) but dramatically clear and credible through the same mask of objectivity with which everyone and everything else is handled.

As it is in another true crime story  The Confessions of Nat Turner (based on a much older crime), even if we didn’t know the sequence of events before we started reading, they are clear within a few pages. It’s the details, the specific action and dialogue of the murders, investigation, capture, trial, and executions that we are really waiting for, but as I say these are revealed only bit by bit. Capote’s almost journalistic impartial-authoritative style surprised me at first, but it is, along with that holding back of crucial details, the device that provides dramatic credibility and momentum. You might imagine that should fall naturally out of the events. But there is much more to the experience of reading Capote’s true story than a senseless multiple killing and subsequent punishment.

It’s almost 50 years since this book was published and of course we read it in historic and geographic context. But that farm community with its assets, beliefs and attitudes, and the characters of two habitual criminals with little to lose are both intensely specific to the 1950s and a place like Kansas, and somehow universal and timeless. 8.6/9.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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