Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review - "In Cold Blood"

I confess going into Truman Capote's In Cold Blood I knew little of its subject or its author. The name Truman Capote was vaguely familiar and I knew of his links to Breakfast at Tiffany's and the farcical murder mystery, Murder by Death. Yet, Capote's supposed masterpiece had eluded me for years. Finally, I got around to reading it - and I must say that I was very surprised.

In Cold Blood is rooted in truth. On 15 November, Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer living with his wife and two children in Holcomb, Kansas were brutally murdered, each one shot to death with a shotgun. The apparently motiveless murder was the work of Perry Smith and Richard "Dick" Hickock, two cons who had gone to the Clutter farm with the intent of robbery. With a group of determined investigators on their trail, Perry and Dick managed to elude the cops before they're caught in Las Vegas, Nevada, tried and executed.

While my synopsis of Capote's 'true account' may seem like its dripping with spoilers, the fact that the book's cover gives away all of these plot points shouldn't be a problem. In Cold Blood is not a mystery, nor is it really a thriller - it is (in Truman Capote's own words) a nonfiction novel, detailing the circumstances around the Clutter family murder and the capture of their killers. Going into the book, I suspected that it was going to be a straightforward account, yet Capote embellished the narrative with so much more. The most fascinating thing about In Cold Blood was its portrayal of the killers. As the novel progresses, Perry Smith takes centre stage as the main character, and in an ingenious, and slightly uncomfortable bit of writing, the reader journeys inside his head.

In Cold Blood is an incredibly interesting read because it gives its reader an opportunity to get into another man's head. Capote humanises Perry Smith, to the point where the reader is liable to feel empathetic towards him. I won't give away too much, but Perry's roe to guilt is complex, chilling and very human.

The story behind In Cold Blood is almost as fascinating as the actual novel. Truman Capote was intrigued by a 300-word article which appeared in The New York Times concerning the Clutter's murder. He and his close friend Harper Lee, soon-to-be author of To Kill a Mockingbird journeyed to Holcomb, Kansas and interviewed the townspeople as well as the authorities charged with finding the killers. After Perry and Dick were arrested, Capote visited the two felons on death-row and interviewed them as well. In fact, Capote developed a close kinship with Perry, which is perhaps in part the reason why he is portrayed so sympathetically in the novel. By 1965, the year of Perry and Dick's execution, Capote had compiled at least 8,000 pages of notes from his various interviews. After waiting six years to publish his work, Capote put the finishing touches on In Cold Blood and it was officially released to rave reviews. Two years later, Capote aided in adapting the book to the big screen in the 1967 film version of the book.

Though I gave In Cold Blood nothing but praise thus far, it was not perfect. Capote's research at times got in the way of his story, and action came to an absolute halt in an effort to build up character. What's more, most of this character building could have been supplied in far fewer words than it was. And while Perry Smith received so much character development, the same cannot really be said for Richard Hickock who remained something of an enigma throughout, and I could never sympathise with him the same way I could with Perry. This at times made Capote's writing one-sided and possibly pedantic, but nevertheless what was there was truly engaging stuff.

As I mentioned above, In Cold Blood was adapted into a film in 1967, the screenplay written by Truman Capote. I have never seen the film, but I have read that it was filmed on location in Holcomb, Kansas, lending the movie a sense of documentary-style film making. It also registers number eight on AFI's Top 10 Greatest Courtroom Thrillers of all time. And of course no discussion of Truman Capote or In Cold Blood would be complete without acknowledging 2005's Capote, for which the late Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Again, I've never seen the movie, but I have heard excellent things about it. If anyone has seen either (or both) of these movies and you recommend them, leave a comment below.

Despite the fact that In Cold Blood was certainly not what I expected it to be, it turned out to be much better than I ever thought. It is an engaging and fascinating read which I will not hesitate in awarding 4 out of 5 stars. If you have never read In Cold Blood, I highly recommend it and suggest adding it to your 'to-read' list.

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