Thursday, May 3, 2018

Reading a Classic: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I've realized for me, reading classics pretty much came to a halt after college. So many new titles to read, I just didn't have time for "the old stuff". Twenty-four years later, I still don't read classics. Shame on me. While high school was full of the usual suspects: The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, Pride & Prejudice, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451; college added a few: Frankenstein, Beloved...it seemed to be more of a movement away from older classics and a move towards new writers and what at the time weren't classics, but now after 20 odd years, are classics. I just didn't get to read everything I should have, and would have liked to read. 

I hope to change that going forward, and make more of an effort to look back at what I've missed and add a classic into my reading choices every once in awhile. In Cold Blood is in this month's read simply because I had to read a novel that was written the year I was born for a book group.  It was a toss up between this and Valley of the Dolls.  I did buy both, and I plan on reading VOD this summer. I was born in the middle of the 1960's; when Vietnam was raging, the Beatles were famous, and people were either protesting or, like my parents, raising kids and living a very middle class life in the burbs. I don't remember any of it, and only vaguely recall Nixon as President. I was busy playing outside and looking at National Geographic magazines at  home (I think pretty much every middle-class family had a subscription to Nat Geo!).  Loved the pictures, couldn't read just yet. 

So onto In Cold Blood. It's a book I handled hundreds of times while I worked at the bookstore; shelving it, putting it on summer reading tables; finding it for customers. I knew the basic story, but it was always "one day I'll get to it". Never intrigued enough to actually read it. 

My first night starting the book, I was hearing Truman Capote in my head. As I got closer to the night of the murders, I put it down and went to bed. Up again in the wee hours of the morning, I had to search the internet and find more about the Clutter family and why Capote wrote the novel. It is, after all, a true crime story; so why not a non-fiction book?  Simply because, while it is based on a true incident, there are enough speculative conversations and what is clearly a fictional scene at the end to make it fiction.  So if you're looking for this book in a bookstore, or in a library, it will be in fiction. 

What I found in my short spurt of research made the book that much more interesting to me.  Capote spent years on this, interviewing everyone in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas; interviewing the two suspects: Richard "Dick" Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, and even spending time in the Clutter home. It became an obsession for him, and caused a sensation when it was published.  

Here are the bones of the story: On November 15, 1959, the Clutter family: Herb, his wife Bonnie, and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon were bound, gagged, and brutally shot to death in their home. Herb, a rancher, had not only been shot, but his throat slit. An outstanding community member, Herb had no enemies and no one could figure out why anyone would harm the Clutter family. The phone line had been cut, and it looked like robbery was the motive. Everyone in Holcomb knew Herb never had cash on him; he paid for everything with checks. A prosperous rancher, he put everything back in to the ranch, and lived simply. 

The only clues left were bootprints-one in Herb's blood. Police had little to go on, and it looked like this might end up being an unsolvable murder. It's hard to remember this was a time before the advances in forensics we have today, so I had to cringe when folks burned the blood stained mattresses and couch ONE DAY AFTER THE MURDERS. What?!

Dick and Perry, however, take up most of the novel. Leaving Holcomb, they end up driving to Mexico, and then wind their way back through Miami, Kansas, and Las Vegas in the six weeks after the murders. The two of them are ex-cons, out on parole. You don't know what exactly happened that night until both men are arrested in Las Vegas, and Perry confesses on the ride back to Kansas. Four people murdered, for $40, a radio, and binoculars. But who did the shooting? Perry confesses to killing Herb and Kenyon, but claims Dick shot Nancy and Bonnie. They had heard about the Clutter ranch, and that Herb kept $10,000 in a safe at home, and decided they were going to rob it, and leave no witnesses. They came prepared to kill. The complete lack of emotion and regret is astounding. Yet while reading about these two criminals, I was struck by Capote's attempts to make them pitiful and sympathetic. They became the focus of the novel, and the Clutters, I felt, were quickly relegated to the background.  We never get to know the Clutter family much at all; and for that reason, I can see why the two surviving Clutter daughters (neither lived at home) were so upset by this work, and to this day, have not granted interviews and do not discuss their family tragedy. 

Capote's writing is, however, masterful. His spare, unemotional writing reflects the coldness of the murderers, and the Kansas winter; wind sweeping over the plains, and cold, quiet nights. He sees the unwinding of a small town, as people move away, become less trustful, and absorb the enormity of the murders. 

I'm interesting in watching the movie Capote, which takes place during the In Cold Blood years. There is a new documentary about the Clutter murders, produced in 2017 called Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders.  I haven't been able to find it to watch it, but I will! 

So, what did I really think of this novel? It took me over a week to read it, because I was filled with dread in the first 25 pages.  I just didn't want to read about the murders. I put it down, then picked it up again and read it through. Dick and Perry are cold blooded, unfeeling killers, and no bad childhood or mental diagnosis will ever make me feel differently about them. It was an interesting crime novel, and I'm glad I read it. I loved Capote's writing style, and now I understand just what lies in between the covers of a book I've held in my hands so many times.  I think it would make a good book group discussion, and I'm sure it has, many times. For crime fiction or non-fiction crime fans, this is considered the first fictional non-fiction crime novel, and set a standard for the genre. 

Rating:  4/6 for the suspense of the novel, and the writing of Truman Capote. I felt the Clutter family were mostly ignored, and Capote's obsession with the two killers was foremost in the novel. I'm not telling you how the two were finally caught and arrested. Read it and see. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 


  1. I listened to the unabridged audio version of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote in 2016. This classic book had been on my wishlist of books to read for a long time and I am glad that I finally have it crossed off my list of books to read.

    I really liked In Cold Blood a lot and I thought it was well narrated. Here's my link to the review of it: https://captivatedreader.blogspot.com/search?q=in+cold+blood

  2. Excellent review! I will be getting to this one soon in My Big Fat Reading Project.


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