Category: Nonfiction novel*
Synopsis: The 1966 nonfiction novel recounting the mass murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, the murderers, and the subsequent trial.
Date finished: 10 February 2015
Comments:Recently, I was at the library’s graduating senior party where we present each of our graduating employees with a book with their bookplate in it that will be placed in our stacks. I dislike crowds of any kind, big or little, even if, like this one, they come with really good cupcakes. I’m always so bad at making small talk. But I have learned that the best way to start a conversation is to ask a question, so when I forced myself to stop hugging the wall and sipping my strawberry lemonade ridiculously slowly, I sidled up to a work friend and asked, “So, what are you reading these days?” We ended up shutting the party down. (Perhaps introverts are only introverts when it comes to most topics?)
At any rate, when my friend was done telling me what she’s been enjoying, she asked what I’ve read and loved lately. I told her about Middlemarch, but she didn’t seem particularly interested. Then I told her I’d read In Cold Blood earlier this spring and loved it. “Really?” she said, “You? I’ve never read that book because I assumed it was horribly violent.”
So, in case you’re like my friend and me and have put off reading In Cold Blood because of its promise of violence, this review is meant to make you reconsider.
First off, is it violent? Yes and no. Capote is a very sensitive writer. While he has to give the gruesome details of the murders of the prosperous and well-loved farm family, he does not glory in it. He doesn’t spend any more time describing the crime than he has to in order to present the facts. While I don’t remember how many pages he uses to describe the murders, I’d guess that it’s not more than a dozen, and only half of those or less are describing the slayings per se. (If you’re especially sensitive to this sort of thing, I think you could skip the parts describing the murders without it affecting your ability to follow the rest of the book.) In fact, the murders seem to be downplayed. While they are at the center of the book, they’re not really the main focus of the book. They aren’t particularly violent or heinous (beyond how all murders are violent and heinous) because the murders aren’t premeditated nor done in a fit of passion. Three of the four murders are done in a merciful way, which is central to the story. There’s no rape nor physical or mental torture.
Capote spent years writing this account of the murders and the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickok. In fact, he seemed to become friendly with Smith—though that special relationship doesn’t show up in the book. Hailed as one of the first (or the first, depending on who you ask) true crime books, Capote’s approach is more journalistic than novelistic. The narrator is neutral, though scenes are set much the way a novel’s scenes are. Capote is much more interested in the psychological than the gruesome or pitiful. And that’s what makes this book so masterful. His writing is fluid and precise. He is a master at providing just the right details in just the right amount to set a scene or paint a powerful picture. He is sympathetic but not at all partial. He doesn’t condemn the murderers nor make saints of the Clutters.
And that’s the true genius of this book. His restraint and control of the subject is incredible. He goes far enough, but never too far. He tells everything, but doesn’t dwell. He fleshes out the victims and the criminals and everyone they knew, but he doesn’t take sides. I sincerely hope this book is still being taught in nonfiction writing classes at universities, because it is a flawless example of what to do and how to do it. I’ve never read another book like it.
If you’ve always been turned off by what the title promises, I hope you’ll reconsider. I’m glad I did.
Would you recommend this to a friend?I did!