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Book Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published in 1966, and is based on events that happened almost fifty years ago. The events were real. This is not a work of fiction. The Clutters, an appropriately surnamed Kansas family, have their own complications within their rambling homestead. What family doesn’t? Clutter the father is a farmer. Who isn’t in these parts? Life is not so productive of late. Whose is? The two younger children, a daughter and a son, still live in. The others have left, happily.

And then, in November 1959, the four Clutters are found gagged, apart from the mother, all with their throats cut and their brains blown out by shotgun fire. The community is in turmoil. No one can explain why anyone might have wanted to kill a whole family in Holcomb, a small, poor, rural community in the mid-West Bible belt.

Hickock (Hicock) and Smith are two men on the move. Their families might be dysfunctional. Their socialisation might have been lacking. For whatever reason, individually and collectively they prey on others, prey in a way that renders them culpable, detectable and ultimately punishable. They know thieving is wrong. So, one of them says, we’ve stolen lives, so it must be serious. It was the two of them that pulled the trigger, that blew brains out, that slit throats, that did not quite commit rape. There are limits. And all for forty dollars and a transistor radio.

I give nothing of this book away when I reveal that the two men did commit the murders — exactly how no-one ever admitted — and that, after years of litigious wrangling, both were hanged. The strength of In Cold Blood is not what happens, but how it happens.

Truman Capote offers us a vast book in just four sustained chapters, each of which is sub-divided as the narrative shifts between aspects of the different individuals' lives. Throughout, the style is much more complex than mere journalism, but the clarity with which it communicates is at times breathtaking. We hear from those directly involved, both victims and perpetrators, their families, the police, the judiciary, the neighbours, the lawyers, the passers-by, the acquaintances, the cellmates. The detail is forensic.

It is essential that the reader is constantly reminded that this is not fiction. Truman Capote offers dialogue where a journalist would report, offers interpretation where an historian would defer, offers opinion where an observer might decline. And so In Cold Blood becomes and absorbing, multi-faceted, mid-twentieth century reworking of Crime And Punishment. The crucial difference that the intervening years have generated is that where the latter concentrated on the individual circumstances and motives of the perpetrator, In Cold Blood explores the social and the contextual alongside the psychological.

And this is where the book becomes deeply disturbing, because it seems to suggest that the individuality that contemporary society seems to demand of us might itself promote a degree of self-centredness, of selfishness, perhaps, that might give rise to nothing less than contempt for others. In the 40 years since the publication of In Cold Blood, it could be argued that such pressures might have increased. Frightening, indeed.

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  • Anna

    What an insightful review. I am especially fond of the comparison of In Cold Blood to that of Crime and Punishment. Thought-provoking indeed.

  • Dear Mr Baste

    The purpose of writing a review is to make some point about the subject, not to record exact details of scenarios or plot to people who one hopes will seek out the experience for themselves. In the case of my review of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote the point I am making – strongly, but without rant, I hope – is that the book itself is readable whilst its entire concept is flawed, perhaps even pretentious.

    In Cold Blood is well known for its author’s forensic attention to the detail of the actual events he describes (except where he made them up, of course). He claimed had created a new form, a melding of fact and fiction that summed to a greater impact than either. Capote’s claim has been dismissed by many critics, but not more succinctly than by Gore Vidal, who observed that this so-called new form is merely journalism, and thus nothing new.

    I hoped that a reader of my review of In Cold Blood would gather that I thought the book was both competent and worth reading but, at the same time, that it was something less than it claimed to be. Its originality is the author’s forensic treatment of the crime’s detail. My dismissal of this through the use of a collective “all” in relation to throats being cut or heads being blown off is part of my criticism. If all that a history play had to rely upon was the exact depth of penetration of the stake up the anus or the precise volume of wine that inundated the lungs then we would have elevated post-mortem reports to the level of literature, even when apocryphal.

    Furthermore, there is nothing contradictory or even inaccurate with my use of “all”. If, on a Liverpool versus Everton day, I were to describe the crowd as “all wearing their red and white and blue and white scarves”, I do not imply in any sense that each and every person wore both blue and red. In fact, none of them did, but they were still collectively “all” in their red and blue. There is, however, the implication that the extra detail would be irrelevant, or even uninteresting.

    Whether Capote’s approach – which was, as journalism, even in its own time neither original nor novel – actually works as a device is what we really should be discussing. I clearly want to make the point that it does not. In fiction the detachment and cold-bloodedness required to create such a form actually detracts from the impact of the events it describes. In Anne Tyler’s The Clock Winder, for instance, it is far more important to record that the gun “went off” than to track the exact penetration of the bullet, identify where it lodged and thereby estimate the precise time that elapsed before its recipient died.

    In Cold Blood is a good read. It is worth the effort. It is not, however, a novel that will endure, except as an example of how publicity and promotion can create both fame and status. Its prime innovation, its forensic detail, was already an established feature of b-movies or pulp fiction, a fact that remains true today. If you have nothing to say, then say it in detail. As a representative of these manufactured, mass-produced, clichéd forms, In Cold Blood will survive as an iconic example but not, in my humble opinion, as anything else. I do, I hope, try to be generous in my reviews rather than dismissive. May I ask the same of those who read them?

    Best wishes


  • read the book

    you should read the book more carefuly if you are going to write a review. Only mr. Cutter’s throat was cut and not everyone was gagged. Also they do reveal how the family was killed baste on the testimony of the murderers

  • Dear shmow.

    I bow to your accuracy. I am culpable. I have entered the word “all” in a sentence to indicate a collective of picture of events when, in fact, it is inappropriate. I accept the accuracy of your criticism. All of them did suffer as described, but not all of them suffered both fates individually.

    Let’s agree that they were all murdered. How does that change credibility of the review?

    Best wishes

  • shmow

    Only Herbert Clutter’s throat had been cut and no one else’s. How can one trust your review if you can;t get the basic facts straight.