26 August 2009

In Cold Blood

I have a criminal confession to make: I love true crime books. Always have. I still remember the scene of my first crime, er, true crime story : I was six years old and sitting on the top step of my great-grandma’s back porch. The perpetrator in question was a Reader’s Digest article about Waneta Hoyt, the NY State housewife who murdered all five of her children one-by-one, because she couldn’t stand to hear them cry. I was really intrigued and profoundly disturbed by that article, and I’ve loved true crime ever since. In fact, my love of true crime stories led me to seriously consider becoming an attorney or psychologist. (This was before I came to my senses and realized that history and literature are my true passions.) I still love reading a good true crime book, though, and I recently decided to read the granddaddy of all true crime stories: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

This book proves that old adage: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I don’t think Capote could’ve conjured up a more warped story if he would’ve tried. In the early morning of 15 November 1959, prominent, well-to-do farmer, Herbert Clutter; his wife, Bonnie; and their two teen aged children were brutally murdered in their rural Holcomb, Kansas home. Two months later, police arrested a disturbed, neurotic, crippled aspirin addict named Perry Smith and his former cellmate from the Kansas state penitentiary – smooth-talking, manipulative, psychopathic con-man Richard Hickock – as the murderers. In his book, Capote meticulously records the incidents leading up to the murder, the crime itself, Smith and Hickock’s bizarre time on the lam, the police investigation of the Clutter murder, the arrest, the suspects’ trial, and Smith and Hickock’s execution five years after the fact.

In Cold Blood is one of the most gripping books I’ve ever read – I couldn’t put this book down once I started it. The first section, where Capote alternates between describing the assailants’ preparation for the murder and the Clutters’ last day alive, is one of the most suspenseful things I’ve ever read. The murder itself is an interesting one, but what really sets this book head and shoulders above other true crime is Capote’s meticulous research and fine writing. Capote interviewed everyone connected to the crime (from the police investigators to the Clutters’ neighbors to the murderers themselves) and read all of the documents connected to the case while working on In Cold Blood, and his hard work paid off. He really captures the atmosphere of these events, and he also manages to get inside Smith and Hickock’s heads. (As despicable as these two were, I can’t say I envy Capote’s task, but the result is quite interesting, especially when these two losers begin to turn on each other) Capote also pioneered a new writing technique with In Cold Blood. Capote called this book a Nonfiction Novel. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from that when I first started reading; I feared that this book would feature random moments where the author ad libbed whatever he thought sounded best. I was wrong - thankfully! In his Nonfiction Novel, Capote combined the eloquent, lyrical style, descriptive narration, and realistic dialogue that a novelist would use, except in the case of In Cold Blood, everything is factual and told with the objective tone of a journalist. This book is very well-written, and I think that’s what makes it so good.

I won’t say I enjoyed reading this book: it’s a very morbid topic, and the Clutter murder was a horrific, senseless, unjustifiable crime, but In Cold Blood is a fascinating read. This book is, hands-down, the absolute best true crime story I’ve ever read. In Cold Blood is a must-read for true crime aficionados, but anyone looking for a well-written book will relish Capote’s style and innovative approach.

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