In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) - Truman Capote, Bob Colacello Truman Capote claimed to have invented in this the "non-fiction novel" which today is usually called "creative nonfiction." It's a bastard child, neither journalistic history nor fiction, by its nature rather unsettling because you can't really just sink into it as a story nor really trust it as fact. I've read, for instance, that the last scene in the cemetery is made up because Capote didn't want to leave the reader with the brutality of the executions. Yet note I'm giving the book a full five stars. It would be unjust not to. Capote's prose is immaculate and evocative, preserving in amber a time and place: 1959 Kansas. I should warn that below I'm going to discuss details of the book some might consider spoilers, although for what it's worth I don't--Capote lays his cards out face up on the table from the beginning. The subtitle of the book announces the subject from the first: A true account of a multiple murder. Within paragraphs we know who the victims are--four members of the Clutter family: Herb, Bonnie, Kenyon and Nancy--a wealthy rancher, his invalid wife, their teenage boy and girl. Nor is this a whodunnit. We know within pages the murderers are Dick and Perry and their purpose--to rob the home and murder anyone there to leave no witnesses. You'd think this would leach all tension, all suspense from the narrative. It doesn't though. Capote starts the day before the murder and takes you through a day of the murdered family, building your sympathy for them and twisting the screw with small ironies--such as sixteen-year-old Nancy laying by her bed her clothes to wear the next day--which would become the clothes she was buried in. This is intercut with the story of the murderers making their way to the Clutter home and Capote weighs it with this malevolent sense of unavoidable fate that created a terrible tension. I've read that people feel Capote wrote of the killers, especially Perry Smith, with great sympathy. Capote befriended Smith in prison and some even suggest they were lovers. Something I find hard to credit given Smith's incarceration, but does reflect how many read Capote's empathy for Smith here. Even if so, Capote didn't pull his punches--at all. I'm not about to forget these lines of Perry Smith from his confession of the murders: "I didn't want to kill the man. [Herb Clutter] I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat." Oooh kay. If a friend or lover put that in print about me... I think in the end you do have to feel grateful for whatever empathy Capote did feel for Smith, because otherwise I doubt he could have portrayed him so well. Ultimately I felt about Perry Smith much as Dewey, the lead detective, is said to have felt: "sympathy... [that] was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy." As for Dick Hickock, I did feel some fleeting sympathy for him in the course of the book--but far less so then I did for Smith. Both came across to me as soulless sociopaths with grandiose views of themselves. Mind you, some say Capote depicted the murderers more vividly than their victims, to better fit the murders into a mytheopic allegory of class warfare and American dream gone wrong. If so, Capote failed with me. I felt much, much less for either of the murderers than I did for the Clutters--Capote left enough truth between the lines for that. Nevertheless, what I find so remarkable in this book published in 1966 about these 1959 murders is how it's not dated in the least. Not in the psychological insights into the criminal mind, not in how thought-provoking it is about violence, crime and the American justice system and the death penalty--or for that matter, how journalism is practiced. A book well worth the read that makes almost every other true crime book I've read seem like pablum. Nevertheless, I should stress I'm rating this so high as a "novel"--as a work of "non-fiction" it still leaves me with many questions about its reliability.