May 16, 2007

Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Truman Capote - In Cold Blood Obsessive is the only way to describe Truman Capote’s study of what drives a murderer to kill. In Cold Blood, follows the story of Dick Hickock, Perry Smith, and the family of four that they murdered one night in Kansas.

It’s an incredible read. The pages read like a more convincing, more psychologically accurate version of a Patricia Cornwell novel. And there’s a reason for this feeling of realism. The events Capote describes were real.

Capote apparently decided to chase the story after reading a 300-word piece in the New York Times that started:

A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged … There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.

There was little more for Alvin Dewey, the detective sent to Holcomb, Kansas, or Capote to go on. The killers were only found because one had foolishly bragged to a fellow inmate that he intended to rob and kill the Clutter family.

Once the killers are identified, the book becomes a dissection of the relationship between the two killers, but also the relationship they had with their parents. Their plan is to escape to Mexico and search for gold. The first bit of the plan works well, the second less so. Their short cash reserves are quickly spent on prostitutes and only a dangerous return to the United States can resolve their financial difficulties.

What makes the book so incredible is the accounts that Capote manages to grasp from the key players in the story. Hickock and Smith seem to reveal every detail to him while they await execution, and even the hurt family members tell him quite personal details. All this becomes more surprising when you find that Capote infuriated the people of Holcomb, who detested the forensic examination of their already bruised community.

In Cold Blood is a brilliant book. Dripping with Capote’s obsessive streak, it becomes as much a book about the author as it does about the murder itself, but is no worse off for it.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Martin

    Thank the lord I’m no longer the only person on the course who has read this. This book is the sole reason I want to be a journalist. The Capote of In Cold Blood is the kind of journalist I want to be. Sod cats up trees, village fetes and all that nonsense. THIS is what journalism can be, at its best. And if you don’t aim for the best, why bother? I was genuinely shocked when many of my colleagues on “The Best Journalism Course In Britain” (TM) told me their journalistic heroes were jobbing BBC career men. There are many solid, professional people in the BBC. But there are very few risk-takers, visionaries and imaginative pioneers. Capote was all of these things, and a master of the English language to boot. This book stands comfortably with the achievements of Orwell and John Steinbeck.

    17 May 2007, 11:21

  2. But do you want to be a news journalist or a documentary-maker? There’s plenty of risk-taking, visionary and imaginative people doing longer pieces, but it’s pretty hard when you’ve got 2m30 to put a story across.

    17 May 2007, 20:34

  3. Martin

    Well, both I suppose. You’re right about the constraints of the form, but I’m talking about ambition rather than practicalities. There’s a saying that if you aim for a ten foot jump you might make an eight foot one. I might not be Truman Capote or (say) Nick Broomfield immediately, but you’ve got to aim for the top.

    18 May 2007, 20:05

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