Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Haunting Look at a Brutal Crime

In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote
Published by First Vintage International
4 Out of 5 Stars

In 1959, four members of the Clutter family (Herbert, the father; Bonnie, the mother; Nancy, the popular teenage daughter; and Kenyon, the reserved and quiet son) were tied up in separate rooms of their own home and shot in the head. All of this took place in the Mayberry-esque town of Holcomb, Kansas (a poster child for "things like that don't happen here"), and terrified the local residents. There was little evidence, no clear motive, and a good chance that those responsible would never be apprehended. Once the perpetrators of this violent crime were captured, it was revealed that four people were brutally murdered for roughly $40, a pair of binoculars, and a radio. 

In Cold Blood blends the non-fiction story of the Clutter family murders and the subsequent manhunt for Perry Smith and Richard Hickock with fictional touches to create what Capote termed the "non-fiction novel." And what he creates here is beautiful and masterful: the vivid imagery, the skillful building of suspense, and the complexity with which the characters are rendered are all nothing short of superb. 

What impresses me the most is that Capote is able to build tension in a book where the reader knows the narrative--and he does it not only in the build-up to the murders, but also time and again as Smith and Hickock embark on a road trip filled with close calls and crime sprees. It is also admirable that details of the murder itself are not gratuitous; the material is not treated as tabloid fodder and does not seek to sensationalize or linger upon the gruesome. The Clutters are never reduced to a body count; Capote brings them to life in the opening chapters so that the reader is always keenly aware that these were people with dreams and frailties, friends and family.

To that end, he also refuses to paint the murderers with broad brushstrokes. There's no doubt that Smith and Hickock had criminal, even sociopathic tendencies (particularly in the case of Smith). However, Capote reminds us that they, too, were human and in many ways shaped by violent backgrounds and abusive childhoods (again, primarily in his depiction of Smith). While not absolving them of the crime, his portrayal does force us to look at the human behind the act and not just the act itself. 

The only complaint I have is not a fault of the novel; in fact, it's more likely a testament to how effective the overall work is. Capote made me feel for the characters too well and constantly being aware of its roots in reality made for a depressing read. For all of its strengths, I was certainly glad to reach the end of this one.

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