A Superb Non-Fiction Novel.
The mostly true account with occasional machination is high-level storytelling.
The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #51/100
I tend to enjoy works that have multiple different angles. It allows you to soak up a little bit of everything with a discursive interest, never being bored. When the whole is made greater by the intertwining, distinct parts is when things become a work of art; In Cold Blood is that kind of book.
Capote is a masterful story teller when describing the abstract human psyche. He finds such concrete and relatable descriptions that the ineffable becomes intelligible. The setting of Kansas, with its isolation and bucolic life, bursts forth from the pages. The horrendous crime captivates even though we know the killers and the outcome. A switching narrative, between victims, perpetrators, and community, creates a complete 360 of immersion.
This is as close as you can get to a lived experience from a book.
Having read a small news bulletin about a crime in Kansas, Capote set out to begin researching the crime to create a novel. Having some clout from the success of his novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” this was going to be an entirely different kind of project. Some would would say is the first true crime novel, which was then an entirely new genre.
With friend Harper Lee (of To Kill A Mockingbird fame), Capote spent four years in western Kansas interviewing anyone and everyone. Eventually, he even made friends with the killers of the Clutter family. With the massive amount of field notes, Capote wrote a captivating retelling beginning to end taking into account all parties involved. While Capote confidently espoused that the book is 100% true, there are credible criticisms about particular embellishments.
It was a smash hit and still is. It reigns number two all-time in the true crime genre for sales second to Helter Skelter, a novel about the Charles Manson murders.
What puts this book head and shoulders above everyone else is the writing. The heinous subject matter does inspire a “don’t want to look but can’t look away” feel, but none of that would have been as powerful if not for the small vignettes that Capote uses that expose the human spirit.
Where Capote shines the brightest is his characterizations. People, far away and also long gone, become cemented in our minds. No person is left to waste; we feel we know the post office manager just as well as the killers. We become a part of the story as the relatable thoughts and feelings slowly etch ourselves into the very fabric of a cloth long-ago spun.
Take this small aside describing Nancy Clutter’s journal, the young daughter murdered:
But as in every manifestation, she continued to tinker with her handwriting, slanting it to the right or to the left, shaping it roundly or steeply, loosely or stingily—as though she were asking, “Is this Nancy? Or that? Or that? Which is me?”
Not enough just to describe the contents of the journal, he takes it one step closer and psychoanalyzes her state of mind. An adolescent trying on different projections to see which one is them is a universal coming of age activity. Capote finds the most intimate way to communicate this.
Even with less important characters, he has a way of getting to the root of their essence. Myrt Clare, the postoffice mistress, has this interaction with her mother:
“Myrt, there’s two ambulances gone to the Clutters’.”
Her daughter said, “Where’s the ten-thirty-two?”
“Ambulances. Gone to the Clutters’—”
“Well, what about it? It’s only Bonnie. Having one of her spells. Where’s the ten-thirty-two?”
Mother Truitt subsided; as usual, Myrt knew the answer, was enjoying the last word. Then a thought occurred to her. “But Myrt, if it’s only Bonnie, why would there be two ambulances?”
A sensible question, as Mrs. [Myrt] Clare, an admirer of logic, though a curious interpreter of it, was driven to admit.
“An admirer of logic, though a curious interpreter of it.” Human beings, messy and complicated, are neither fully one thing or another. Capote was able to live in this world of ambiguity and make sense of it.
The midwest has long been an object of attention for those living on the coasts. Capote takes time to take in the vistas full knowing many of his readers would be enthralled with the expansive setting:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
This is continuous throughout the book as Capote takes time to make sure every scene has the backdrop of the midwest.
Not to mention the thoughts and feelings he is able to convey.
The book ends from the perspective of Alvin Dewey, the main investigator whose worries and consternations weighed on him due to the heavy responsibility of being in charge. An apocryphal account of him meeting Nancy Clutter’s friend at her gravesite is the coda, but the book ends with these words:
Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.
After this tale, we are somewhat like Dewey: it’s been a long, horrifying journey into the belly of the beast, and now we have finally reached the end. It instantly brought to surface my own personal memories of audible wind-bristled leaves while holding heavy thoughts between an end and a new beginning.
I put the book down and was able to imbibe one of those rare moments in life: a great book finished, a bit sad that it was now done, and the feeling of pure content washing over me as I lost my sense of self in the moment.
It might not be entirely non-fiction, but I don’t care: this book is phenomenal.
Other People’s Takes:
- FictonFan’s Book Reviews: “It’s not got the essential truth to be true crime, and yet it’s presented too factually to really be considered a novel. And yet, it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth – certainly emotional credibility, at any rate.”
- booksiread: “The writing: the mastery of language that Capote wields. He doesn’t flaunt his skills by going all thesaurus on you – he just can’t help it. The glow of wheat on the fields around the Clutter home as the sun sets upon their final day; the creak of boots upon the stairs; the mood in the coffee shop in the weeks after the murders…”
- The Humpo Show: “The writing style is the abiding memory I will take from my reading of Capote’s masterpiece. The murders and the story behind them are fascinating in themselves, but told through Capote’s style makes it memorable.”
Won’t read too much here as this is on my list. Pleased to see 5*…looking forward to it.
It’s been a while since I read a book where I noticed the writing. There is just something qualitatively different about it. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!
Looking forward to it. Cheers for the prompt.
Great review! The descriptive writing really is wonderful, isn’t it? Have you come across the new book by Casey Cep – Furious Hours? It’s really about Harper Lee and the true crime novel she tried and failed to write, but it casts a lot of light on her relationship with Capote and on the writing of this book too. I thought it was a great companion to this and Mockingbird.
When I first read this, I thought you were saying someone published a post-mortem Harper Lee novel that was True Crime, and I was not ready to go through Go Set A Watchman again.
That book, however, I’ll check out. Thanks for the suggestion and kind words!
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You like this give ‘Executioners Song’ a go. Good stake Casual
I read Executioner’s Song maybe 10 years ago and LOVED IT. I remember it being quite lengthy though. I might read some more of Norman Mailer’s stuff.
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I tried other Mailer but it didn’t get me like Executioner’. While we are into the light stuff I have a take coming up on a fave doc. ‘Thin Blue Line’. Fantastic piece of work if you haven’t seen it.