In Cold Blood
Vintage Trade Paperback, 343 pages
It's funny: this book took me about a week to read, has enormous strengths with only a few minor weaknesses, nearly singlehandedly invented the true crime drama, has at least tenuous connections to To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet... I just don't have a lot to say about it.
The story: Truman Capote saw an item in the news about the senseless slaying of a family of four in Kansas, was intrigued by it, and spent something like seven years putting together a definitive narrative about the events that transpired. He worked with Harper Lee to interview hundreds of people in the community and who knew the killers, and integrated the thousands of pages of notes into a compelling and even touching narrative that captured the lives of the two killers as well as the lives of those who were killed. It contains moments of great brutality and moments of great tenderness. And Capote may well have fallen in love with one of the killers along the way. (I have not yet seen Capote, but the writing of this book is the narrative focus of that Oscar-winning film.)
And yet... the whole thing is so straightforward and yet intimately interconnected that there's just not a lot of commentary I can give, without basically reproducing the whole book.
The book starts slow. It spends about eighty pages introducing two groups of people: the Clutter family, the four individuals who would be killed, and the two low-rent ex-cons (Perry Smith and Richard Hickock) who would do the killing. It introduces the reader into the rhythms of the lives of the principals, getting a feel for exactly what transpired that day, the ends Part One of the book without actually "showing" the crime. We pick up in Part Two with the discovery of the bodies, and the two criminals trying to find a place to hole up after committing the crimes.
The community of Holcomb, KS (where the murders took place) is justifiably shocked by the brutality of the slayings, and since most people in-town believe the crime to have been committed by one of their own, a large amount of distrust forms among the local population. The actual killers, several hundred miles away by the time the bodies are discovered, bounce around from town to town kiting checks and hoping to find decent work.
They are eventually caught by a mechanism that is so out-of-the-way that I wouldn't dare spoil the surprise for those who haven't read it, and the crime is finally described by one of the men. Seeking what they believed to be tens of thousands of dollars, the murder of four innocent people nets the two men somewhere between forty and fifty dollars, including a silver dollar stolen from a young girl's changepurse.
Brought back to Holcomb for trial, they are given a mostly-fair but quick trial, sent to Death Row, and, eventually, hung. The book ends less than two pages after Smith's hanging, on a note of loss as the primary detective on the case views the Clutter farm.
Yet... there's so much more than this simple telling would indicate. In the hands of a skilled narrative artist like Capote, the people involved are fully human, full of desires and honesty and integrity and foibles, and if no one is quite fully evil, no one is quite angelic. The killers are portrayed as hugely flawed and perhaps mentally ill, but with dignity of their own, and while the book never excuses their crime, it makes the reader sympathetic towards their own plight.
Critics have speculated that Capote took many liberties with the circumstances of the crime in the past forty years. How the author could have had the kind of access needed to get the kinds of details he has on display here is bewildering. I have little doubt that at least some portions of this book were simply invented, or at least massaged into place by the incredibly talented author.
Reading this back-to-back with The Ski Mask Way just reiterated how insipid the latter book really is: while the main characters in 50 Cent's book are barely even two-dimensional, Capote's "characters" shine with all the complexity of real life. And while the ending of Ski Mask comes from nowhere, and the brutality of the crime is senseless and unnecessary, In Cold Blood makes a similar crime completely understandable, even necessary, for the two young men.
In the end, Capote's work is a masterwork, but a strangely cold one that leaves me not wishing for a reread anytime soon. Fans of true-crime novels will find one of the best ever written here, and it's a perfect example of how to use real events to create narrative tension, but it's also strangely disposable: once it's done, it's done.