Truman Capote - In Cold Blood

By: Sam West

For Truman Capote, notorious socialite and the author famed for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the decision to write a true crime novel about the murders of four members of a well-liked, religious family somewhere way out in the plains of Western Kansas appeared to be an odd career choice.

Nevertheless, In Cold Blood is undoubtedly his masterpiece and a book that I will never forget. Capote, for me, is the master of prose and pathos, someone who captures the mood of a whole town or paints a full picture of a character with merely a few sentences.  Everyone in the small town of Holcomb, from the victims of the murders to the postmistress, pulse with life in a way that is rarely seen in a book and the cinematic style of Truman’s writing, which switches between scenes and points of view seamlessly, is effortless in its skill.

This is not a detective novel. From the very start, we know ‘whodunit’. Capote isn’t interested in a murder mystery; rather he wants to explore the minds and lives of the psyche of the killers and those who they have affected. And it is through this, rather than the gory details of the Clutter murders, where the author succeeds in inspiring a feeling of unease and discomfort within his reader.

What is truly disturbing is that these killers are not particularly exceptional people or evil in a way we can easily identify and distance ourselves from. Perry Smith and Richard Hickock are overall ‘regular folk’ with regular interests and regular problems. Without ever condoning the senseless murders that they committed, the reader finds themselves empathising at times with the two partners; we feel sorry for Smith as we learn about his terrible childhood and we smile at Hickock’s jokes and his easy charm. Only once in a while, when Capote reminds us, do we stop to reflect on just who these people are. And suddenly, the reader feels very guilty for enjoying the company of the two men.

Of course, that is the point. Capote, who befriended both the killers as a result of his research for the book, struggled with this morel dilemma more than anyone. At the end of the book, the reader feels very much drained in a similar way to the residents of Holcomb, the small Kansas town in which the murders took place. After the events at the Clutter home, houses in Holcomb were never left unlocked as they had been and people no longer slept feeling safe. The murders lead to a watershed in mentality; the death of innocence and the ushering in of mistrust and suspicion. In Cold Blood powerfully reminds us of the capacity of humans to commit terrible acts of violence and cruelty, no matter how ‘ordinary’ they may seem.

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