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[390] In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

” I’d been too dazed, too numb, to feel the full viciousness of it. The suffering. The horror. They were dead. A whole family. Gentle, kindly people, people I know—murdered. You had to believe it, because it was really true. ” (I, 66)

In Cold Blood is a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences that Truman Capote spent five years on unraveling, following, and writing. Until the tragedy, few Americans had ever heard of Holcomb, the lonely hamlet in western Kansas where the murders took place on November 15, 1959.

But who hated the Clutters? I never heard a word against them; they were about as popular as a family can be, and if something like this would happen to them, then who’s safe, I ask you? (I, 70)

Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were in prison when they heard from another inmate, Floyd Wells, who had worked at Clutter’s farm for a year some 10 years ago, that Herb Clutter is very wealthy and he has money stashed in a safe in his house. After being released from Kansas State Penitentiary, the duo immediately drew up plans to obtain the money. Hickock wrote a series of hot checks to derive money for tools. With a knife, a 12-gauge shotgun and a length of cord, they robbed the Clutters, ransacking the house getting no more than fifty dollars, a pair of binoculars, and a transistor radio. Assuming the soft-spoken Herb Clutter lied about the hidden cash, they executed in cold blood Herb, his wife, and their son and daughter—bound, gagged, and shot. What appeared, then unbeknownst to investigators, to be murder with no apparent motive, did have a very long-shot but simple one: robbery.

If I hadn’t [done a three-to-five), then I never would have met Dick, and maybe Mr. Clutter wouldn’t be in his grave. But there it is. I come to meet Dick. (III, 161)

And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it. (IV, 290)

What follows is an account of the investigation of the crime, the town’s overwhelming reaction, the rumors flying, the funeral, a fluke almost as gratuitous as the killing itself, how the police captured the murderers, and the trial.

. . . and though she was usually alone in her opinions, this time she was not without company, for the majority of Holcomb’s population, having lived for seven weeks amid unwholesome rumors, general mistrust, and suspicion, appeared to feel disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves. (III, 231)

In Cold Blood is an exceptional piece of literature that captures America in time for one of its most notorious incident. It stands out among many a crime fiction and true crime documentary with its reality, that which if heard out patiently (Truman Capote committed to his memory the event and its dialogues thoroughly), can orchestrate its own full range. That he spent a substantial portion of his life researching about the crime and its aftermath allows him to write it as a novel. He presents the facts in a manner so emotionally detached that they declare a reality that transcends reality. Everyone involved—victims, murderers, investigators, and outsiders—come alive in the words. The Clutters were especially poignant victims whose lives denied possibility of evil until they knew the terror at their door. The killers, one perfectly sane and the other schizophrenic, are both social dropouts filled with nausea, world-weariness, and loneliness. The peaceful congregation of neighbors and friends suddenly had to endure the disquieting experience of distrusting one another. The squadron of psychiatrists, poised on determining whether the duo was in full contact with reality and the consequences of their actions, unveiled mental abnormality and darkness of their subjects.

This is a deeply haunting and disturbing book. I don’t know which is more chilling: the atrocious crime itself, or Capote’s chronicle of the crime with surgically precise writing. The sound of it, that is, the voice of the narrative, as corroborated by the audio, creates the illusion of a soundtrack. The book not only manages a moral judgment without Capote’s appearance, it also restores dignity to the event.

343 pp. Trade Paperback/Audio. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


23 Responses

  1. I’ll say it again…so proud that you dove into audio with this one! The book itself, and the narrator, is the best that literature has to offer. It sets the standard for true crime really, and is what really inspired my love for the genre. Wonderful review!

    • This is a great choice to begin my audio experience. On several occasions I was holding my breath, even when I was driving. I’m amazed how Capote’s surgically precise, emotionally detached narrative, when read by Scott Brick, just completely captured my attention.

  2. I thought this book was incredible – a poignant critic on the American Dream. We are given so much information and detail surrounding such a horrific crime, yet in the end, we are still left wondering “why?”. Great review.

    • Believe it or not, I have never read Capote. This book completely blows me away. When I had to put it down for work and other errands, I was always preoccupied with the thought of what might come next. The motive to the crime is still a mystery to me, consider Hickock was perfectly sane and in full contact with reality. It was perry who is most perplexing.

  3. I really really need to read this one!

  4. I’ve this book in my pile! I’m just waiting for the right moment to read it! ;-P

  5. One of my favorite books of all times. Capote really is a genius.

  6. I remember the newspaper accounts when the story first broke — I was just entering high school — 1959 — the horror of such a story to me, growing up in a farm community — I always mark that event as the end of the “innocent” 50s — though, of course, they were anything but innocent. Perhaps the murders simply exposed a brutal and disturbing undercurrent of the 50s. The book is incredible but so is the story of the writing of the book and of Capote’s relationship with the murderers as he waited and waited and waited for their execution so he could finish the book. You should read more about that. There’s a terrific interview George Plimpton did with Capote soon after the book was published that is also worthwhile. And you should read accounts of the “Black and White” ball Capote gave in part to celebrate his success — some of the people from Holcolmbe were in attendance. He’s a fascinating man and I believe this book is the best thing he ever did. The movie is also terrific — and very in keeping with the tone of the book. And the movies about Capote can add much to your understanding of the author.

    • Truman Capote’s book is just so well-written and intriguing. The case stays with me long after I turned the last page of the book. I looked up Garden City Police Department, whose website has a detailed account of the murder. I am thinking of doing a bit research for the newspaper clippings. I am looking forward to watching the film with some friends.

  7. A fantastic book, I read this the first time when I was fourteen – looking back on it, a rather morbid choice – because I’m from Kansas and, to be honest, everyone literary I know in this state has spent their fair share of time with this book. I was then assigned it again in an introduction to journalism class as an example of the ways in which fact and fiction can become largely the same thing. A wonderful book, wonderful writing, and a wonderful review to match. Great job Matt!

    • You’re from Kansas! When I was reading it, I was wondering whether everyone from Kansas would have to read the book. The writing, which blends news reporting and fiction, is unique. I read that Capote spent five years doing research of the case, soaking all the details and committing to his memory without a tape recorder. In Cold Blood will stay with me for a long time and it is definitely marked for re-read.

  8. Brilliant book! One of my favorites, because of the excellent writing. Really made me aware of what a talented author Capote was. And your review was fantastic – makes me want to read it again!

    • I am ashamed to say that this is my first Capote book. Having read In Cold Blood, I am thirsting for more of his writings. I am going to read breakfast at Tiffany’s.

  9. This book really is a masterpiece. I would urge readers to see the movie Capote also.

    • I don’t understand why it has taken this long for me to read this book. It’s even beyond my belief that all that my education has entailed in the reading has bypassed this book.

  10. Matt – I enjoy reading all of your reviews, including this one. This book impacted me on several levels which is why I wrote a post not only on my reading blog, but my deceased son, Josh’s blog. I’ve also since watched both movies about this time in Capote’s life, Capote and Infamous and read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird and the HBO documentary, Hey Boo. I find it interesting that Harper Lee was instrumental in helping Capote research his book and that Dill, a character in her book was modeled after him. Apparently, he was terribly jealous that she won the Pulitzer Prize and after doing so, their relationship waned. Fascinating stuff.

    And like you, I also want to read more Capote.

  11. […] Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey. What was the last book you stayed up too late reading? In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Share this:StumbleUponRedditPrintMoreTwitterFacebookEmailDiggLike this:LikeBe the […]

  12. […] In Cold Blood Truman Capote This is a deeply haunting and disturbing book. I don’t know which is more chilling: the atrocious crime itself, or Capote’s chronicle of the crime with surgically precise writing. It’s an exceptional piece of literature that captures America in time for one of its most notorious incident. It stands out among many a crime fiction and true crime documentary with its reality, that which if heard out patiently (Truman Capote committed to his memory the event and its dialogues thoroughly), can orchestrate its own full range. […]

  13. […] landmark in reading: In Cold Blood by Truman […]

  14. […] read romance, nor do I read sci-fi. I am also not a true crime type although I did enjoy In Cold Blood. I like to read literature with beautiful language–books for which you have to read between […]

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