Tuesday, February 05, 2008

In Cold Blood (1965)

Truman Capote, with major help from Nell Harper Lee, produced groundbreaking work with 1965’s In Cold Blood. These days there are probably few readers or film fans not already acquainted with the basic details of the crime upon which Capote based the book: Herb Clutter, his wife and two youngest children, both teenagers, were shot to death in November 1959 in their isolated Holcomb, Kansas, farmhouse. Two petty criminals who had recently been paroled by the Kansas prison system were arrested, convicted of the murders and, almost six years after the killings, finally faced the hangman.

By today’s standards, sadly enough, this crime does not seem to have been an extremely brutal or sensational one. But 1959 America was not yet numb to this kind of thing and the crime was reported in detail across the country, even grabbing the attention of novelist and short story writer, Truman Capote in New York City. Capote recognized the potential to turn this crime into a book and, with childhood friend Harper Lee in tow, went to Kansas to do his research. But this time, instead of a novel, Capote may have invented something new: a true crime account that reads more like a novel than it does as nonfiction.

In Cold Blood does a masterful job of describing the murders but, as in any good novel, Capote allows the suspense to build for a long time before he reveals the details of those four horrible deaths. In the meantime he has turned the four victims into real people by providing the details of their everyday lives, their hopes and dreams and what each of them meant to the community in which they lived. When Capote’s story finally reaches the final minutes of their lives, the reader is left with a sense of the huge waste that happened at the hands of the two rather shallow sociopaths who destroyed them.

Capote performs the same feat with the two killers, turning them into real people, hard as it is to feel any sympathy for either of them. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were losers in every sense of the word, two callous sociopaths who felt absolutely no sympathy for anyone they criminally victimized, even the four people they murdered. Although it is never mentioned by Capote in his book, he developed a strong relationship with the two from almost the moment they were returned to Kansas to face their accusers. He was especially taken with Perry Smith, the American Indian runt of the pair, and took advantage of that relationship to gain access to many of Smith’s personal photos, journals, letters and drawings. He quotes entire letters and passages from the writings of both Smith and Hickock throughout the book, in fact, but only described the photos and drawings that he obtained from Smith.

Capote’s In Cold Blood style has been much copied but has seldom been matched. His melding of a fiction style with a true crime account is so complete that it is very easy to forget the book is not, in fact, a novel. This is the book for which Truman Capote will be forever remembered and, considering that nothing quite like it had ever really been accomplished before, it is truly a masterpiece.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Great to read your comments on this one, Sam. I had just read it for the first time myself last year and was taken with it as you were.

  2. I read this book WAY back in college. After reading your post, I'm thinking about reading it again.

  3. Thanks, Ted, I appreciate that. I first read this one over 40 years ago and I was surprised at how much of the detail I remembered. That proved to me just how remarkable a book "In Cold Blood" is.

  4. Syndi, I think this one stands up well to re-reading because of the new ground that Capote breaks with it. It still fascinates me.

  5. "Capote’s In Cold Blood style has been much copied but has seldom been matched."

    You are so right Sam! While reading it, I felt the style was old, but in a good way. Like I've never read anything like it and perhaps may never read anything new like it. It also provided such vivid detail of everyday scenes I was seeing one of my favorite artists, Grant Wood. Here's my mind's eye...http://maggiereads.blogspot.com/2006/05/grant-wood-visions.html

    Thanks for this reminder, Sam! :)

  6. great review! now i am even more excited to read it. it does intimidate me a bit though.

  7. Maggie, that's a great comparison of a painter and a writer. Both of those work images to the degree that they leave an everlasting impression on the mind's eye.

  8. Aloi, don't let this one intimidate you at all. It is very accessible...that's part of the beauty of Capote's writing style.