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Review of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

As I think I said in an earlier post, my initial reaction to this book was that it was decidedly creepy. Capote recreates the last day or so of the lives of the Clutter family, the investigation into their murder, the lives of the perpetrators and their arrest, trial and execution. It’s written like a novel – the author makes himself an omniscient, impersonal narrator, piecing together the story (if the film Capote is anything to go by) from interviews with all the involved parties.

The creepiness in the early part of the comes from the descriptions of the Clutter family. When he writes about the other protagonists you can understand that Capote spoke to them and found out what they thought and felt, but with the Clutters themselves the detail with which he renders them suggests an imaginative filling in of the gaps.

Presumably it all comes from what the family’s friends said about them. And, from the rest of the book, it’s clear that Capote doesn’t stray at all from a policy of straight, though sympathetic, reportage. While it was clear fromt he recent film that Capote was infatuated with Smith, the half-Native American killer, and, knowing this, it became obvious to me how much of the narrative was dedicated to Smith’s account of the what happened, the text is never explicitly judgemental, either positively or negatively, with regards to the two killers. Capote’s recounting of events is always clear-eyed, and, for the most part, he lets the participants tell their own story.

Implicitly, the author probably does favour the killers somewhat, especially Smith. The latter is given the lion’s share of page time compared to his partner in crime, Hickock. Also, when, at their trial, a psychologist is prevented from giving a detailed report on his opinions as to the defendants’ sanity, the book says basically, ‘but this is what he would have said …’

Capote’s attention isn’t all on the two killers, though. The third main player in the drama is the Kansas investigator, Al Dewey, and his particular story is handled with just as much fairness and insight as Smith’s and Hickock’s are. What comes across quite clearly is that Capote is fascinated by people, and he portrays all of the characters in the book with a kind of dispassionate empathy that is very reminiscent (to me, at least) of Philip Larkin. Perhaps the reason the first part of the book doesn’t work so well is that Capote never met the Clutters.

In Cold Blood suffers perhaps from being a little too long and a little too repetitious: events from Smith’s life are gone over more than once, for instance. Also, when the two men are captured the narrative loses some of its impetus – the last few years of their lives, including Hickocks unceasing quest for a judicial escape route, are skimmed over in the last few pages.

This is a very interesting and worthwhile read. Never quite moving, perhaps, but I don’t think this book is interested in something as superficial as provoking emotion – In Cold Blood wants to provoke understanding.

Categories: Literature, Reviews
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