Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Buy In Cold Blood
I must say that I'm a little nervous to do a review on this novel, and not neccessarily due to the fact that the book is a work of non-fiction or that it contains some grusome details of a slaughtered family in Kansas from 1959.  I'm also not really fussed about talking about the death penalty or debating it's merits or lack thereof.  What I'm most nevous about is that I have never read a book quite like this before.  It's generally regarded as a classic, which is what made it suitable for my classics book club, but it really feels like you should not really enjoy a book like this - because you know that you're not reading fiction.  The horrific tale is true, and as a reader this is constanty in the back of your mind.

I'm still very unclear with Capote's motives in writing this book, which I think fascinates me more than the subject itself.  Did he simply feel like he needed to tell this story in more detail?  Did he feel he had to make a specific commentary about the legal system or capital punishment?  Did he want to display a piece of the human condition - or human condition gone wrong?  Perhaps the answer is all of these things and perhaps it is none.  I would love to hear from others here that have an opinion on the matter.

I think the book describes the legal system from a very Kafka-esque perspective.  Tons of red tape, tons of hype and maybe not as much substance - or substance that gets muddled with emotions and beaurocracy.  I doubt this was new material at the time, but it really felt like Capote needed to get this topic off his chest.

Capital Punishment is discussed - specifically targetted towards the legal system and jury members.  Are those that put men to death in the court room guilty themselves of murder?  Is there value on a criminal life due solely to the fact that they're human?  Are these rights waived when such a heinous crime is committed?

There are interesting parts about sexual perversion and how it may be linked to people lacking empathy towards other humans or valuing life at all.  That said, there were no questions asked about how you classify perversion and that was largely due to a discussion on rape and pedophilia [two subjects generally regarded as black & white] - homosexuality was never breached in this novel.  Capote, a homosexual, never discussed this but according to sources listed on Wikipedia, the relationship between Capote and one of the killers (Perry Smith) was brought into question.

I think Capote tries to get you to empathize with the characters - specifically Smith.  He comes from a broken background, but is very intelligent and very sensitive.  It felt like a glimmer of Lolita and Nabokov's desire to mess with your mind in regards to Humbert Humbert - but didn't go nearly as far.  I think the aim was probably to teach the reader that characters in books are unlike characters in real life - they have good qualities and bad and you have to take both together when establishing a viewpoint.

What makes people committ such horrific acts?  I'm not sure we know a ton more now than we did 50 years ago, but Capote tries to use pyschology findings to state that these men cannot be painted simply with a broad brush that says 'evil' or 'good' when there are a lot of factors that take into consideration the psychology of the individual.  There is no question that what was done is 100% wrong, and in trying to identify the why, Capote is not saying that their actions can be excused.  He is simply saying that the reader must make choices to determine where they deem Smith and Hickock to lie on the evil/good continuum.

As a piece of literature, I wasn't that impressed.  Capote's language is good, but not strong and I never found myself wanting to write anything down that I read (though I doubt this was the point).  That said, I didn't get as much out of this book as I would have liked.  I understand that it was a landmark novel in it's time, and I'm not sure the concept (a non-fictional novel) has ever been captured better, but I still found that I longed to finish it and get started on another read.  I feel sort of guilty for this - like I'm not honouring the dead as much as I should.  Though, I suppose that's fairly indictive how we treat a lot of the dead... and perhaps that's a human mechanism that lets us focus on life.


Eclectic Indulgence said...

From Phil - from our book club:

In Cold Blood is based on the brutal murder that took place in Kansas over 60 years ago. The victims were 4 members of the Clutter family. The perpetrators, Dick and Perry, are two career criminals who befriended each other during a period in jail. The murders are savagely committed to a family that seemed blameless, headed by the eminent Mr. Clutter, a self-made, God-fearing, honest and devoted husband and father.
Capote’s writing style leaves the reader captivated when outlining the sequence of events that lead to the tragedy. The book starts off by highlighting all those elements of the Clutter’s personal and social lives that remind the reader that these were real human beings, with their hopes, dreams, fears, idiosyncrasies, and defects. This introduction gives the reader the feeling that they know the Clutters personally, or at least can identify closely with their day to day lives. But while recounting these personal details, Capote intermittently reminds the reader that this family will soon meet a premature and unnatural death; he does this at times with cryptic hints, at other times with explicit references. This feeling of getting to know the Clutters, while knowing that at any moment they will be slaughtered, prevented me from putting the book down; every time I turned the page I expected the climactic event to take place. And when it does, the reader is shocked by the sheer wickedness of the act.

Capote’s portrayal of the perpetrators of this crime also attests to his excellent writing. The reader is brought into the mental universe of both Perry and Dick, and is initially led to believe that the former, despite being a career criminal, has some compassion in him. Meanwhile, Dick appears to be the cold hearted criminal with an utter lack of any sense of decency and moral compass. These psychological profiles, which are based on the actual individuals, gave me the impression that Dick slaughtered the Clutters, while Perry helplessly watched. And then the reader discovers that the real killer was Perry. This comes as a shock, because Capote’s portrayal of Perry—a man with a troubled childhood who simply seemed to fall through the cracks—left me sympathetic for this unfortunate young man.

When reading about the details of the actual murder, the sense of injustice, and the wish for vengeance, is strong. The killers ultimately receive the death sentence for their crime, and when they are sentenced to hang, I must admit that a part of me felt like this sentence was justified. But this conflicted with my opposition to the death penalty. I have intellectually sound reasons for opposing the death penalty, and yet at moments I could not help thinking that in this case, it was justified.

The book also raises existential questions about freedom and responsibility. During the trial, there are reports produced by psychologists that provide detailed psychological analysis of the killers. One is especially struck with the profile on Perry. It outlines his utterly abusive parents which undoubtedly damaged Perry and his siblings. Indeed, two of Perry siblings commit suicide, while Perry drifted into a peripatetic life of crime and violence. If we assume that Perry’s homicidal act was rooted in the unfortunate event in the past, then it suggests that he was not fully responsible for his crime. But this brings up complex philosophical problems about the character of freedom. Are our decisions a result of long ago events that remain indelibly embedded in our unconscious mental life and adversely impact our capacity for moral decision making? The detailed psychological profile of Perry does not answer this question, but it leaves one wondering about whether he was truly able to act differently than he did.

Monica said...

I had no idea Capote wrote anything like this (I've yet to read him).

Not sure it's a subject I'm interested in reading (although 20 yrs ago while studying psychology I would have ate it up). But I enjoyed reading your great review on a fascinating book.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

I really need to read something by Truman Capote. I think it's amazing that Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood were written by the same person. They seem so different... On a different note, I'm more interested in the relationship between Perry Smith and Truman Capote.

Mel u said...

Hi-I review a lot of classics also

Hi-I am just hopping by to say Hello- The Reading Life. I return all follows and comments Mel u

Ellie said...

Hopping on through. I have In Cold Blood on my TBR as I found the film Capote really quite interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review, I've been recommended by a friend to read this (after not enjoying Summer Crossing) but it sounds like I'd enjoy this one.