Book Review – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Legend has it that while working on In Cold Blood Capote mentioned the title to an acquaintance. The person replied, “Does that refer to the murders or your writing about them?” After reading this book, I think Capote’s interlocutor was being generous. While this book came out in 1965, I found it much more sensationalistic and morbid than most modern tales about mass murder. I guess in one sense, the author deserves credit. That’s not an easy feat to achieve in America.

Capote referred to this book as a “non-fiction novel”. While I wished he’d have chosen a more pleasant topic, I agree with his assessment. The book included multifarious subject matter, all centered on the brutal executions of a family of four in Holcom, Kansas on November 15, 1959. (After reading In Cold Blood, that date will become fixed in your memory.) Capote detailed the Clutter family’s lives before that night, he described the man-hunt for the culprits and even the biographies of the killers themselves. I thought the last part rather unusual at first, but as the story went on, I understood: the author strove to portray them as people and not vicious monsters. I’d give Capote an “A” for effort on this. No matter what he wrote about them, I couldn’t sympathize with a sociopath and a pedophile.

It’s hard to find the words to explain the level of melodrama in this book. The author divided it into four sections. He titled them “The Last to See them Alive”, “Persons Unknown”, “Answer” and “The Corner”. The latter referred to the gallows’ nickname at the state prison. With regard to the first section: I obviously knew the Clutter family’s ultimate fate before I started reading. Did Capote really need to give readers a detailed account of each one’s last day?  And did he really need to describe teenaged Nancy’s laying out her clothes including, “the dress in which she was to be buried”? (Page 56)

Earlier I mentioned the question about the title’s meaning. I read several passages that showed author’s insensitivity. I don’t think it appropriate to quote them verbatim. He described in tacky detail the crime scene photos of the family. (Page 83) As if explaining the murderers shot each in the head with a shotgun didn’t get the point across.

Using creative license, Capote also took readers into the mind of one of the killers. The author provided us with his recollections of cutting one of the victim’s throats. (Page 110) The family had two surviving daughters. Out of respect for them alone, this passage shouldn’t have made it into the book.

While the author provided a strong case for the two killers’ death sentences, he argued for the contrary. Towards the end of the book, he summarized an article in The American Journal of Psychiatry from July of 1960. In it, several psychiatrists argued that some victims of abuse can be triggered to react violently. The person(s) they attack may “represent” the person(s) who wronged them. (298 – 300) In other words, these people suffer from a diminished capacity.

I’m not a death penalty supporter myself, but after reading this book I may need to re-evaluate. The author presented a detailed description of the two killers. He explained how they executed a family of four over less than $50.00. At no point did either express any remorse over the murders. Then he cited a professional study explaining that these people couldn’t control their impulses. I think he refuted his own stance on capital punishment.

The author performed copious research on this book. It enabled him to provide troubling insights into what happened and why. I wouldn’t want to read In Cold Blood again. It did make me wish Capote had lived long enough to compile a book on the Simpson trial, though.

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2 comments

  1. I always find that effort to present the human side of these sorts of people an interesting one. Definitely there’s usually more sides to a person than just being a monster, but that doesn’t stop them being a monster.

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