Review: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

Having watched the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s powerhouse performance in ‘Capote’, I’d been intrigued by the concept of the ‘non-fiction novel’ and the curious author of supposedly the very first one. Intrigue turned to appreciation which turned to awe as I read Truman Capote’s masterpiece: Tragic, sympathetic, human and terrifying in equal measures. Frankly, I’ve never read a book quite like it.

Capote’s primary success comes in his deviation from the studiously documented who, when and where that the facts of the case so easily lend themselves to, and in his stepping into the spaces facts neglect and that only a novelist can occupy. He explores the motivation and depravity of these destroyers of such a typically American idyll, whilst forcing us to confront the similarities we find between ourselves, the victims and the perpetrators.

Dual narratives course through much of the book. These storylines provide a thrilling pace and weave closer and further from each other, crossing first with the murder of the Clutter family, then slipping far apart before intersecting again at the moment of their capture. KBI agent Alvin Dewey’s despondency at the seeming hopelessness of the case is perfectly mirrored as the killers sun themselves on the Mexican Riviera, and the rising hope amongst the investigating agents later reflect in the ache in Perry Smith’s legs and the recklessness of Dick Hickock’s actions and choices when they are still trying to evade capture.

Capote captures and displays the myriad voices of the characters in great detail, allowing their voices to rise – often unhindered – from the text in long, unbroken periods of testimony. The way he treats these very real voices is to use their opinions of the act and the people involved, to demonstrate the profundity that the case offers. His portrayal of Alvin Dewey; determined to bring the killers to justice, outraged at the killings, disgusted with the individual perpetrators; allows the moral centre of the case to rise above, for instance, the slight ambivalence and a longing for the return to the quiet life of most of the townsfolk.

I found the film to be an excellent companion to the book, although would have perhaps preferred to watch it afterwards, in hindsight. It seemed to provide a ‘behind-the-scenes’ accompaniment to the story, and also made Capote’s depiction of Smith more identifiable. The writer treats the killer with such overwhelming sympathy and goes to great lengths to force the reader to understand how this murderer’s childhood and tough life contributed to the mindless destruction he wielded and the rumour – not really dispelled by the film – has it that Capote found himself falling for Smith. Indeed, that Capote never completed another novel after In Cold Blood would seem to indicate his having become too close to his subject matter.

Nevertheless, Capote does manage to show Hickock and Smith – despite their supposedly ‘redeeming’ qualities – as the bitter, drifting dregs left behind by the American century, that they are. I was reminded of Steinbeck’s characters, of feelings of sympathy at an unavoidable plight, and that – for Smith at least – there was simply no place in the world fit for this person, or that this person would fit. ‘There, but for the grace of God…’, perhaps Capote was trying to say?

An incredible book, enhanced by surrounding storms which swirl to this day, but undeniably worthy of every word written and spoken about it, since its first publication. If Hoffman’s portrayal is any indication of Capote’s personality – which you certainly get the sense it was – then I’m sure the writer would have been quite satisfied to have his work on the lips, minds and fingertips of readers for more than half a century.


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