Tuesday, July 01, 2008

IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

The Book: Truman Capote, IN COLD BLOOD: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences. Book of the Month Club facsimile first edition reprint, 1986. Fair condition; spine is badly cocked, dust jacket is scuffed and rubbed at corners.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1987

This was one of the first "real" books I bought after I got out of school; like millions of others before me, I succumbed to the temptation of four books for a buck and joined the Book of the Month Club. They had just reprinted this facsimile first edition in honor of the Club's 60th anniversary. Unfortunately, book club editions have a deserved reputation for not being quite as well-bound as the originals.

No matter. It's a great book, and I own a second copy as well, a heavily marked-up trade paperback that I used to lead a discussion group on the book at The Mystery Bookstore in 2004. (Maybe that will be this week's theme: books I own multiple copies of. There are a few.)

IN COLD BLOOD was Capote's masterwork, and changed American journalism for good. It started as a New Yorker article; Truman Capote traveled to Kansas to attend the murder trial of two men accused of slaughtering a Kansas family for no apparent reason. Capote was fascinated with the story: who were these people? What made the Clutters victims, and what made the two men -- Dick Hickok and Perry Smith -- killers? Was this a purely random event, and if so, how did the police manage to catch the killers?

Capote spent years digging for answers, and those he could not find, he confabulated. He described this book as "a nonfiction novel," meaning that he assigned motives and causality to events that might not have been related, and he filled in details he could have no way of confirming. Most of all, Capote brought his own moral judgment to the events of November 13, 1959 and the execution that followed five years later. His sympathy for Perry, in particular, colored his disgust with the death penalty, and the book draws none-too-subtle parallels between the cold-blooded murder of the Clutters and the cold-blooded execution of Smith and Hickok.

In the years after the book's publication, several residents of Holcomb, Kansas objected to details that Capote had gotten wrong, or characterizations they felt were unfair. The power of IN COLD BLOOD is that it holds some deeper truths that seem to override the impossibility of getting every detail right.

Writing the book -- and witnessing the executions -- ruined Capote. Although he was famous for talking about a great work in progress, he never wrote anything substantive again, and the shorter pieces he did publish were treated as personal betrayals by his friends. He must have been surprised at those accusations of betrayals; after all, hadn't they all read IN COLD BLOOD?

Two very good movies about the writing of IN COLD BLOOD came out in 2006: Capote, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, and Infamous, which spends more time on the relationship between Capote and Perry Smith (and features a smoking Daniel Craig as Smith). Both are excellent, but have only half their intended impact if you haven't read IN COLD BLOOD first.

1 comment:

Larry said...

I never read the book, but saw the movie against my mother's objections. At the time, in early high school, I was struck by the humanity given to two men, who committed such a brutal act.

To this day when reading, or hearing of a horrific event committed by one human against another, I cannot help to wonder how things would have been had life for the aggressor gone a different direction.