After having watched the outstanding film Capote, essentially about Truman Capote's experiences researching the grisly murders of a family in rural Kansas in 1959, I was compelled to read In Cold Blood, the product of the six grueling, emotionally trying years of said research. The movie asserts that the novel simultaneously established the author as the most famous writer in America and ruined him both emotionally and physically; he never finished another book and subsequently became addicted to both alcohol and drugs. I was intrigued and, I admit, a little scared. I mean, if the material inside those pages could scar someone as urbane and jaded as Truman Capote, what would it do to me?
First of all, it should be noted that In Cold Blood, while written like an extremely well crafted work of fiction, is not the product of an overactive imagination. It's all real. That's the frighteningly haunting part. It is a non-fiction literary novel, a genre created by Capote and of which he still reigns as king, which means that it's all, whether you like it or not, factually-based. I have yet to come across a non-fictional book that is half as full of description and deeply developed "characters" as is In Cold Blood. And, perhaps I never shall.
Published in 1965, the novel is dedicated to both Jack Dunphy, Capote's longtime lover, and Harper Lee (who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird), his lifelong friend. The first few pages immediately set the scene and tone for the rest of the book, much like the opening scene of a movie (Capote also wrote the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was then made into the movie starring Audrey Hepburn). You are guided into the world inhabited by the subjects and feel yourself leaving the present behind. Welcome to Holcomb, Kansas, the (unlikely) scene of the crime.
Equal parts bleak and joyful, Holcomb is a small tight-knit community that seems like an ideal place to grow up and then quickly move away. Despite the flat prairie lands that mercilessly expose one to the elements, Holcomb and the nearby town of Garden City were really quite sheltered. That is until November 1959, when one of the community's most-popular and best loved families, The Clutters, were murdered for no apparent reason, shot point blank in the heads, with the father also having his neck slit. After this tragedy, things just weren't the same in good old Holcomb.
The film doesn't really go into the family's background or the townspeople and instead focuses more on the killers and Capote. Thus, I was slightly taken aback by the extent to which In Cold Blood delves into both the Clutters' and the community's lives as well as that of the two murderers. It's so well constructed and pieced together that it's difficult to fathom that it's non-fiction and that the victims weren't interviewed by Capote from the beyond the grave. I kept on asking myself, "How could he possibly know all this stuff?"
Indeed, Capote creates in-depth character studies of each member of the family -- Mr. Clutter, his mentally unstable wife Bonnie Clutter, the enormously popular and peppy Nancy and his moody, nerdy only son Kenyon -- except for, mysteriously, the two eldest sisters and only surviving members of the family, Beverly and Eveanna, who were away at the time, one being married and the other engaged. Maybe they refused to talk to him? Capote doesn't stop with the Clutters, he includes and interweaves the stories of various members of the town -- from an English teacher at the high school and Nancy's best friend Susan, to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents working the case and even the likes of Mrs. Myrtle Clare, the ornery, opinionated postmistress -- in an almost Dickensian panorama with the same grand results.
The most disturbing passages, besides those that actually describe the murders, are those of the murderers themselves, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Their easy cruelty, delusions and violent tendencies sent shivers up my back. I imagined having to spend years hanging out with one of them in a jail cell while researching a book as Capote had done with Smith. Of course, he was driven to drink! These evocative passages are interlaced with the other passages creating a seamless, layered story, which gradually builds suspense and tension. You are compelled to turn the page even though you're apprehensive of what happens next.
It was quite an interesting dynamic having first seen a film about how the author was affected by the story and then reading In Cold Blood afterwards. It added another nuance to the reading experience, that's for sure. I kept on imagining him sitting at his desk writing and interviewing the subjects and picturing Truman Capote as Philip Seymour Hoffman. Through enormous amounts of research and imagination, Capote miraculously re-constructs and pieces this tragic story together with a chess-like stratagem, creating a novel of epic proportions.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Paperback (368 pp)
Vintage; Reprint edition: February 1, 1994