“In Cold Blood” has been described as ground-breaking, a book that opened the doors to the true crime world and ushered in a sensational era of real American horror stories. I’m thrilled to have read it, and found the questions it left behind are just as captivating as the parallel tales it wove together.
Truman Capote’s account of the murder of the Clutter family in small town Kansas in the late 1940s is truly chilling. While I have not seen either film based on his book (the critically acclaimed “Capote,” which focuses on the author himself and the research he conducted while writing “In Cold Blood” or the same-named movie, which starred Richard Blake), I had certainly heard of the famous book. The style is fascinating – all four members of the Clutter family are described, going throughout their day, interacting with friends and loved ones, while the reader is constantly reminded that they are in their last day on earth. We are similarly introduced to other people living in town, and to the murderers, though we cannot know their relationship to the family, because it’s not explained until much, much later.
The killing occurs in excruciating detail. The small, wholesome town is thrown into chaos. The murderers escape and head to Mexico. And, maddeningly, we still don’t know the motive.
Capote sets the scene with amazing detail, for instance, entire conversations between business people in Holcomb and nearby Garden City are recounted. So, how did our faithful narrator bring these scenes to life? That is where the book, and the method, make you wonder.
It’s natural to think that, in order to paint the complete portrait of the Clutter family (and all of the characters, for that matter), Capote took some liberties with dialogue. But how do we connect those liberties with a TRUE crime book? Did Capote have an agenda? There are allegations that Capote was way too involved with Hickock and Smith, the murderers, and that he may have even had a relationship with Smith that extended beyond research.
Smith and Hickock’s lives are examined in detail, from their childhoods to their criminal pursuits. We hear what transpired in the six weeks between the Clutter murders and the killers’ apprehension, we are flies on the wall during their interrogations, we inhabit Death Row with them, and we are present for their hangings. Over the entire course of justice being served, there is a pall – the “why,” once answered, is futile.
What I found downright fascinating was not the bloody details, or the down-home town being terrified. It was that I knew who died, and who killed them, and that they were brought to justice.. and there was still a compulsion to read. There was still a mystery, a driving force. That force the sheer story-telling skill of Capote – the true star of the book.