On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.
As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.
A hypnotizing look at a real crime. I’m giving this 4 stars for the reading experience, which usually means “I enjoyed it a lot.” But I can’t actually say that I enjoyed this book, more like I couldn’t look away.
It’s obvious from the book that Capote had sharp observational skills and a good ear for dialog. Taking an actual news story and making it fit a dramatic arc is a distinct skill, something uncommon in the “true crime” genre, where stating the facts sometimes takes precedence over telling a good story. Capote never lost sight of the shape of the narrative, while weaving the facts into a riveting book. The most amazing thing that he accomplished with this work, in my opinion, is humanizing everyone, even the killers.
It is “creative nonfiction” which probably means that Capote created some conversations and situations which make the story work better. At the time of writing, he was certainly accused of these inventions. Despite that, I thought that he treated all involved fairly. The Clutter family are presented as successful, community-minded, and unlikely victims of crime. The reader cannot help but feel for their remaining family members and their community. Neither, however, can you ignore the families of the killers, who also suffer in a different way, nor the law enforcement officers who were traumatized by the murder scene and exhausted during the long investigation.
Although we learn the facts of the murder, the gory details are not lingered on and the two murderers are not glorified in any way. Indeed by book’s end it is difficult to have any sympathy for them at all, as it is obvious that they care for no one but themselves. Rather ironically, Hickock was not nearly the tough guy that he liked to pretend he was and Smith was certainly not the sensitive soul that he portrayed himself to be. They cruise through the story like sharks, striking at others whenever they are given a chance. And yet, both of them are lonely and seem to desperately want real friends. Instead, they only get each other and notoriety for a crime which neither one would have committed without the other.
Not a book for sensitive souls, In Cold Blood looks evil in the face without flinching.