In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a non-fiction novel based on the murder of the Clutter family, husband and wife, son and daughter, all four killed in their own home by Perry Smith and his accomplice Dick Hickock in 1959. Mr. Capote’s accomplishment is not that he tells a compelling story of murder and the subsequent search for justice which he does, but that he also creates a complete and sympathetic portrait of just about everyone involved in the story without making excuses for anyone’s behavior.
Mr. Capote leaves no stone unturned. There are no truly minor characters in In Cold Blood. Everyone presented is captured in detail, not just sketched in, but portrayed fully enough to become memorable. Everyone from the victims and the killers, to the waitress in the local diner and Nancy Clutter’s teenage boyfriend who can’t believe what has happened or that he is the main suspect. The result is not just a portrait of a Midwestern town, but of a large slice of the American pie. I doubt a more complete portrait of America circa `1960, its people and the social conditions that made them what they were, exists in any form. In Cold Blood’s strongest asset is that it shows us what America was like in general by showing us the lives of so many specific people. By the end of the book, I had the sense that I knew as much about Holcomb, Kansas as the people who lived there did.
I suspect that many potential readers are turned away from the book by the possibility of blood. The story is not a pleasant one, true, but I found the book to be much less bloody, much less violent than the movie versions of this story are. Mr. Capote gives the reader the details of the crime, but he does not exploit them for effect. It is well known that he became at least friends with the two killers, but he does not make excuses for them, not really. He does tell their stories, just as he tells everyone’s story, but, while I came to sympathize with them, I did not at any point begin to see the killers as “victims.”
If you’ve seen either of the recent movies about Truman Capote and the writing of In Cold Blood, the book itself may surprise you. It does not seem like something a man like Truman Capote would write. There is nothing arch about the story telling, no reliance on wit at all. The details are presented in straightforward writing that almost seems to lack style. Details are allowed to accumulate until they build their own story, make their own case. The result is a very dense read that only becomes compelling well into the book. There is no sensationalism grabbing your attention and moving you quickly from chapter to chapter. Mr. Capote trusts his material to do the job without writerly gimmicks.
At least that is what I thought at first. It turns out that there are a few gimmicks in the novel, though not many and not enough to damage its reputation or diminish its accomplishment. In Kim Powers novel, Capote in Kansas, Harper Lee is angered to find that Truman Capote made up a scene at the end of In Cold Blood. Nancy Clutter’s good friend meets one of the chief investigating police officers at Nancy’s grave site shortly after the two killers have finally been executed. How important is it that this meeting never really took place? It does give the book a novelistic feel that the preceding pages didn’t have, but it also gives the book a conclusion it would otherwise be missing. I’m inclined to let Mr. Capote off the hook here. He has done such a wonderful job up to this point, that I’m willing to forgive him this ending. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I like it. When real life won’t satisfy, it’s good to have fiction to rely on.
This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009 as part of a Capote/Lee project I did in conjunction with a book tour for Kim Power’s novel Capote in Kansas. I did another Capote/Lee project this summer about To Kill a Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms which are both novels based on the author’s childhoods. Each appears as a character in the other’s novel. It was an interesting project. Their two lives are so intertwined I think they will alway sbe linked. How can you talk for long about one without talking about the other. I ran a new review of Mockingbird earlier this year so I’m not going to run my 2009 review as a separate post. Instead I’m running it below. I think it makes a few interesting points that I did not make in my review this summer, but it’s also kind of a rambling mess. Oh, well.
To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee has become a recognized popular classic, the sort of book both critics and audiences publicly gush over. I liked it but I’m not gushing over it.
I think everyone in America reads To Kill a Mockingbird before they’re allowed out of high school, I know I did. It has large international following and the movie is also a classic, so I’ll be brief about the plot. The novel follows the lives of young Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill over the course of several years spent growing up in a small southern town in the 1930’s under the guidance of Scout and Jem’s father Atticus.
Throughout the first half of the novel the children have a series of adventures, some fanciful some serious. They learn a series of lessons through the example of Atticus who is without a doubt the best father, maybe the best parent, ever to be portrayed in literature maybe in any medium. I challenge you to find a better father anywhere. In fact, I could go so far as to say that you’ll simply not find a better man.
He’s so good that after a while I began to doubt him. Can anyone really be as wonderful as Atticus Finch? The narrator, Scout, is a devoted daughter who has not yet reached the age when she would begin to find fault in her parents. But, to her credit, Mr. Lee does us show Atticus’s weak spots. He is not free of racism, nor sexism. (No man in 1930’s America could be.) But you’ll have to be a careful reader to spot these faults and basically merciless not to forgive them. This is Atticus Finch we’re talking about after all.
Reading the book this time around, I found close links between To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn . Both novels are about white children dealing with black adults. In both novels this distancing is used to promote an anti-racism message and to make it safer to critique American society. At the time of their publication, both novels were set in the recent past, when things were much worse “than they are now.” (One could argue a character by character match-up: Scout = Huck, Dill = Tom Sawyer, Mr. Ewell = Huck’s father.) And both novels feature a strong dramatic shift about halfway through when they stop being a series of adventures and start to develop a traditional story line.
It is only once Atticus begins to defend Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, that To Kill a Mockingbird begins to follow a clear plot arc. I am a sucker for courtroom drama, and the courtroom drama in Mockingbird is excellent. (It must have been the easiest part of the book to adapt for the screen.) An innocent family man wrongly accused, a stalwart defense attorney, unreliable witnesses for the prosecution, a curmudgeon judge with a short temper. It’s great stuff.
But I’m not gushing. Not me. Okay, I find that I am, maybe a little. Which may just be an example of why To Kill a Mockingbird enjoys the success it does. It has the ability to win over readers somewhat in spite of themselves sometimes. What won me over this time is finding how much I like the character of Atticus Finch, how much I want him to be real. He deserves his place in the pantheon of great American characters.