Jun 23, 2008

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences is a non-fiction novel about a quadruple murder in Holcomb, a small town in Kansas. On the 15th of November 1959, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith broke into the house of Herbert Clutter, a well-off farmer, and murdered him, his wife Bonnie, his sixteen-year-old daughter Nancy and his fifteen-year-old son Kenyon.

In Cold Blood begins by introducing the reader to the victims while they are still very much alive and completely unaware that a day that began like any other day would end up being their last. This approach makes us feel the impact of the crimes much more intensely than we would have otherwise. Then it recounts the events from the points of view of the murderers, of those who discovered the bodies (including Nancy Clutter’s best friend) and of the investigators responsible for solving the crime.

The reader knows all along who the murderers are, and also that they will eventually get caught, and yet the book still manages to be suspenseful. Tom Wolfe famously said the following:
"The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end."
I'm not quite sure if I agree, though. It wasn’t the promise of gory details that kept me going. I didn’t so much want to know how they’d done it, but why they’d done it. I wanted a motivation, a purpose. Because it wouldn’t be a satisfying story without one.

And that’s the thing, really. Life is not always a satisfying story. And I wonder if Capote realized that the fact that the story of these senseless murders wasn’t satisfying gave him room to turn it into one. The book worked in an unexpected way for me. When the killers are finally caught, the whole town, the investigators and the reader experience a feeling of anticlimax:
“The majority of Holcomb’s population, having lived for seven weeks amid unwholesome rumours, general mistrust, and suspicion, appeared to be disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves. Indeed, a sizeable faction refused to accept the fact that two unknown men, two thieving strangers, were solely responsible.”

“Sorrow and profound fatigue are at the heart of Dewey’s silence. It has been his ambition to learn ‘exactly what had happened in that house that night’. Twice now he’d been told (…) But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightening.”
Yet despite this meaninglessness, or because of it, the story gains shape. There’s still no purpose, no real resolution, nothing that quite makes sense. But by providing psychological details, by narrating things in an insightful and detailed but very well-paced manner, Capote builds something where there was nothing.

Before reading this book, I somehow had the impression that it portrayed the killers in a much more sympathetic and redeeming manner than it actually does. What it does is show us the killers in a human way, because after all, and as much as we’d like to deny it, the finger that pulls the trigger belongs to a real person, and not to some sort of inhuman monster. Capote portrays the criminals as two real people. He doesn’t glorify them, but he shows us that they thought and planned and feared and dreamt and felt, just like we all do.

The book, of course, also raises some interesting questions about capital punishment, both in the case of Dick and Perry and of some other prisoners they meet in the death row (which include a young man who killed his whole family). I might as well say that capital punishment is something I’m wholeheartedly against, but this is not why I’m saying the book raises interesting question. Capote doesn’t lecture in one direction or another. But this book will give everyone, regardless of their position on the issue, something to think about.

Another important issue addressed in In Cold Blood is the effect of a violent crime in a small community. He shows how it generates a sort of fear and distrust that are almost obsessive, as if they were proportional to the trust with which the townspeople regarded each other before it happened.
“At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.”
I now understand why In Cold Blood is called a non-fiction novel. Within the framework of the facts, Capote recreates inaccessible details, like the emotions and motivations of those involved. The result is a real story told with all the emotional power of the best fiction.

Truman Capote is one of my favourite authors, and yet it took me this long to get to his most well-known book. In Cold Blood is certainly a worthwhile read. It’s disturbing, touching and thought-provoking in equal measures. And it’s very well written – not with the same sort of stunning prose you find in The Grass Harp and especially in his short stories, but then this is a different sort of book. I’m glad to have read it at least.

Other Blog Reviews:
The Inside Cover
A Bookworm's Reviews
The Book Tiger
Feel That?
Maggie Reads
In Spring it is the Dawn
The Inside Cover
Trish's Reading Nook

(Have you also posted about this book? Let me know and I'll add your link to this list)


  1. I haven't ever read Capote. I watched the movie that came out a while ago, and it made me really not want to read anything by him...but if he is your favourite I think I may have jumped to conclusions too fast. Maybe I will try reading something of his that is a little lighter than this one though. Maybe Breakfast at Tiffanie's or something.

  2. I just read I Am Scout by Charles Shields. It's a biography of Harper Lee, and most of the middle section is devoted to Lee's time with Capote researching and writing In Cold Blood.

    It was all very interesting to me as I didn't know that Copote was "Dill" from To Kill A Mockingbird :)

  3. I wrote about this in 2006.

    I got to say the cover of your book creeps me out. :P

  4. Thanks for such a thoughtful review; when I read this some years ago it was the very lack of sensationalism that I found so powerful. Sad to say I've never read any other Capote works, so I must do something about that. Any recommendations on where to start?

  5. Not sure I'd read this one, probably because I did see the movie and that was enough! I do have the Grass Harp in my tbr pile though (saw that movie too and loved it!)

  6. I have to come back to read this since I haven't read it yet and don't want to know too much about the story. ;) Have you read any of Capote's shorter fiction? I haven't read any of his novels, but I do like his stories.

  7. I tried to comment on your wonderful last night, but my comment got eaten when blogger went off for maintenance. Only have myself to blame for that one.

    Anyway, this is actually the only of his writings I've ever read. Even that was many, many, many years ago. But wow, did your review bring it right back to mind.

    And by the way, I loved that you said, "I might as well say that capital punishment is something I’m wholeheartedly against"...sometimes that feels like a very lonely view to hold.

  8. I saw the movie they made of how he wrote this book, and after that tried to read it. But I couldn't get into it at all. I read a collection of his short stories, and cannot recall a single thing about them now. It's a shame, but I think I'm just not a Capote fan.

  9. This was one of my first books that I read with my book club... we all agreed that it was chilling in that it portrayed just how easy it was for these people to kill the family, and what it did to the people surrounding the case. I didn't like the book all that much, I suppose, because it was so bleak, but it was a brilliant piece of writing.

  10. I have a really short review, such as it is, here. I finally got around to seeing the movie, Capote, and actually wish I'd seen it before reading In Cold Blood. I'll have to try something else by Capote at some point but I have to admit I'm not in a huge rush after being not terribly thrilled with Other Voices, Other Rooms. Great review, though. :)

  11. As I'm currently reading this book (resumed actually, I put it down when I decided to focus on a reading challenge) I practically just clicked on the comments to say that uh, I'm currently reading this book. Hahaha!

  12. I just read Other Voices, Other Rooms and was intrigued by Capote's writing style (it was the first book I've read by him). I will definitely put this on my list, especially because it is so well known. Thanks for the review! I had no clue what it was about and this confirms that it is worth reading.

  13. okay, you've done it again...while I LOVE Capote, I've avoided this book because I figured it would be depressing and ultimately unsatisfying but you've convinced me to give it a chance.

  14. Bethany: I understand your reaction. I saw the movie at the time it was released and I was surprised that Capote was portrayed as such a cold, opportunistic and manipulative person. I have a few friends who actually said the exact same thing as you. I don't know what kind of person Capote was, so I can't say that the movie portrays him unfairly, but I can say this: his fiction definitely does not read like the work of a cold and manipulative person. It's full of tenderness, it's sensitive, it's insightful, it's so human. Breakfast at Tiffany's would be a good one to start with, especially the edition with 3 short stories. His short fiction is probably my favourite of his work.

    Becky: I'll have to look for that book!

    Maggie: Thanks for the link. And yeah, it's not the best cover :P

    brideofthebookgod: The Grass Harp, Breakfast at Tiffany's or a collection of his short stories would all be great. And I know just what you mean about the lack of sensationalism.

    Deslily, I really hope you enjoy The Grass Harp! It's one of my favourite books.

    Trish: I have, yes! I love love love his short stories, they are probably my favourite of his work. I look forward to your thoughts on this one.

    Debi: Stupid blogger...I hate it when that happens. Portugal was actually one of the first countries to abolish the death penalty, so over here most people are used to not even considering it an option. But I know that it's still a very controversial topic.

    Jeane: I definitely can see how he's not for everyone.

    Daphne: It was bleak, that's for sure.

    Tanabata, thank you. I'm glad you liked my review :)

    Lightheaded: Can't wait to see what you think :)

    Andrea: I just love his writing. And yes, I do think this one's worth reading. I hope you think so too.

    Ken: I know, I avoided it too. And it is depressing, or rather, unsettling, but definitely not unsatisfying.

  15. What a super review!! I haven't read this, but ever since I saw the movie Capote, I've been meaning to read it. I find him such a fascinating person! And his writing is wonderful!

  16. Stephanie, thank you :) I agree, he seems fascinating and his writing really is wonderful!

  17. Great review, Nymeth. I read this book a little while ago. I thought it was very well written. I do want to read some of Capote's fiction work one day.

  18. Literary Feline, thank you, I'm glad you liked my review :) I hope you enjoy his fiction!

  19. Sounds interesting. I sometimes find that knowing the end of a tale makes you more tense getting there.

  20. Don't neglect to see the movie, "In Cold Blood," that was made in the late 1960s. It is a work of art in itself and was filmed in all the real locations in Kansas.

    I think "In Cold Blood" took Capote to a place in human nature from which he could never return. He was an unwanted child and saw in Perry Smith the man he might have become. Spending six years waiting for the two murderers to die and analyzing their crimes every day was destructive to him. He never wrote anything of length again -- and "In Cold Blood" is the best of his work.

    Just my opinion.

  21. i am doin a piece of coursework on this at the moment i find it a very enjoyable book despite the fact that the chapters drag on a little!!! capote is a great writer

  22. Some fabulous points in this review that I missed. I didn't mention the capital punishment element or the effect on the community. Forgot all about them. Shall add your link onto my post.


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