August 13, 2006

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
True Crime/Creative Non-fiction/Non-fiction Novel
Finished on 8/6/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very good)

I must have been in my early teens when I first heard about the Manson murders. It was early in the ‘70s when I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter and proceeded to have the living daylights scared out of me. Did my mom know I was reading this?

Other than a couple of Stephen King novels (It and The Shining), I don’t recall ever being so scared while reading a book. These killers were real people. Insane, yes, but very real. If they could inflict such horrors on complete strangers, couldn’t somebody else do the same to me and my family? I think we were camping somewhere in Northern California at the time and I remember feeling very afraid in our cabin after the lanterns were turned off for the night. My innocence and naiveté that the world was a kind and gentle place was shattered. And until recently (when Capote was released on DVD), I had no interest in reading anything from the true crime genre.

When I worked at Borders, I was always surprised that true crime sold so well. Ann Rule and Jerry Bledsoe have quite a fan base, but the mere act of shelving or alphabetizing books in that particular section gave me the chills. The covers are disturbing, the content worse and I never understood the appeal. That said, I was eager to give In Cold Blood a chance after watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s marvelous portrayal of Capote.

I was three years old when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were put to death for their roles in the murder of the Clutter family on November 15, 1959. I don’t recall ever hearing about the murders in Holcomb, Kansas until several years ago when someone in one of my on-line book groups mentioned reading In Cold Blood. Even then, I didn’t really pay much attention other than to wonder why anyone would want to read about something so terrible.

I suppose curiosity got the best of me, especially once I heard what a compelling read it is. I found this to be quite true and didn’t mind the long flights and lay-over on our recent vacation. Capote held me spellbound, drawing me in from the opening pages, yet with none of the sensationalism or gratuitous violence I’d anticipated.

I suspect there are those who wonder how I could possibly read such a chilling account of these senseless murders in light of the horrific tragedy my own family experienced last year. I really can’t say and don’t know why the narrative didn’t frighten me as it has other readers. Perhaps I’ve been to hell and back and there’s just not much else that can scare me anymore.

From Amazon:

"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans--in fact, few Kansans--had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there." If all Truman Capote did was invent a new genre--journalism written with the language and structure of literature--this "nonfiction novel" about the brutal slaying of the Clutter family by two would-be robbers would be remembered as a trail-blazing experiment that has influenced countless writers. But Capote achieved more than that. He wrote a true masterpiece of creative nonfiction. The images of this tale continue to resonate in our minds: 16-year-old Nancy Clutter teaching a friend how to bake a cherry pie, Dick Hickock's black '49 Chevrolet sedan, Perry Smith's Gibson guitar and his dreams of gold in a tropical paradise--the blood on the walls and the final "thud-snap" of the rope-broken necks.


In 1959, Capote set about creating a new literary genre -- the non-fiction novel. In Cold Blood (1966), the book that most consider his masterpiece, is the story of the 1959 murder of the four members of a Kansas farming family, the Clutters. Capote left his jet-set friends and went to Kansas to delve into the small-town life and record the process by which they coped with this loss. During his stay, the two murderers were caught, and Capote began an involved interview with both. For six years, he became enmeshed in the lives of both the killers and the townspeople, taking thousands of pages of notes. Of In Cold Blood, Capote said, "This book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry." In Cold Blood sold out instantly, and became one of the most talked about books of its time. An instant classic, In Cold Blood brought its author millions of dollars and a fame unparalleled by nearly any other literary author since.


  1. Sounds like a great read. True crime isn't a genre I ever read, but you made this book sound so compeling that it makes me want to try it. Anyway, everyone's got to read Capote at least once, right?

  2. Right. And since I can't recommend Breakfast at Tiffany's, I'd say go with In Cold Blood. Or, give his short story A Christmas Memory a try. I thought it was very good. I love this passage:

    "Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man's eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies."

  3. Anonymous4:40 PM

    I never really understood the appeal of Ann Rule or others writing in the true crime genre, either. I'd put off reading 'In Cold Blood' for that very reason - the subject matter just didn't interest me. But after the movie came out and so many people kept touting it, I read it and have to say, quite enjoyed it. I think it's Capote's exquisite use of language and storytelling ability that really makes this book stand out.

  4. Well, I must admit, I was a little concerned when I heard that you picked this one up, but I'm glad it went down ok.

    I was terribly impressed with In Cold Blood--probably because my mom has been a devoted true crime reader all my life. After reading snippets of her books here and there, I knew I wasn't a fan, so I was surprised to like In Cold Blood myself. Incredibly well written, and such a human story even though it was filled with such atrocity.

    Must read more Capote! That was on my summer to-read list, but we all know how that pans out sometimes.

  5. Lesley,

    I agree. I wonder if I'd have enjoyed (I struggle with that word for a book such as this) ICB as much if Capote weren't the author. I'd like to read more by him - not sure what... and I do plan to read the bio that recently came out.


    Thanks for your concern. I was a little worried about it, too, but surprisingly was able to read the details without flinching too much.

    Any suggestions for further reading of Capote? I've read Breakfast at Tiffany's and A Christmas Memory.

  6. I was definitely surprised when you mentioned that you read In Cold Blood, although there've been many rave reviews of Capote on one of my listservs. I couldn't read it, myself, but I'm known for being a serious wimp - everything gives me nightmares. I'll have to try Capote, some time, but definitely not this one!

  7. Nancy,

    It really isn't a gory, scary read (imho), but I understand your reluctance. Maybe give A Christmas Memory a try this winter. I wish I could recommend something else, but I really didn't care for Breakfast at Tiffany's.


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