on April 11, 2006
On November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, the four members of the Clutter family were dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning and tied up. All four were shot in the head with a shotgun at close range. None survived. The killers left few clues, and there was no apparent motive for the slayings.
On assignment from the New Yorker, author Truman Capote, along with his assistant Nell Harper Lee, traveled to Holcomb in late 1959 to investigate the killings for an article. The article was completed, but still Capote remained in Holcomb. He conducted interviews with every person in town; he pored over police records and statements. Once the killers, drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were caught and sentenced, he even interviewed them on Death Row. The Clutter killings became an obsession for him; and that obsession turned into a book that would become a literary milestone, that would singlehandedly introduce a new genre to the literary world: the nonfiction novel. He called his piece of creative nonfiction IN COLD BLOOD, and it so consumed him that it would be the last thing he'd ever write.
I didn't expect this book to move me so deeply. In most true crime books that are written today (at least in my experience), the evidence is presented straightforwardly, unemotionally; the facts are dry and textbook-like. Such is not the case with IN COLD BLOOD. Capote's prose is mesmerizing. His descriptions of Holcomb and its inhabitants are vivid and lively. His research is impeccable, presented flawlessly, lushly, sweeping the reader away on waves of vibrant language.
And his imagery is heartbreaking: Nancy Clutter teaching a neighbor to make a cherry pie, Dick Hickock deliberately hitting a dog on the highway, the Clutters' old mare standing alone in an overgrown pasture. With startling empathy, Capote transports his readers to the Holcomb, Kansas, of late 1959: We feel the tension and sorrow clouding the town; we watch as the police nearly crumble under the weight of their investigation; we're with Dick and Perry as they flee across the United States to Mexico, leaving a trail of bounced checks in their wake, and we're with them in their cells on Death Row. We're right there the whole time, from the day before the Clutters are killed to the day after their murderers are executed. And Capote is unflinching; he keeps us there, even when the honesty of his prose makes us uncomfortable, even when we can't imagine reading on but somehow can't seem to stop.
And this is the genius of IN COLD BLOOD: It is a violent, unflinching account, sorrowful beyond belief (and made even more so because it's true); but, in the hands of a master like Capote, it's really hard to stop reading about this unfortunate family and their motiveless, pathetic murderers. This book made me sad, it made me shiver; but I'm glad I read it.
on February 27, 2006
I have meant to read this book for some time. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that seeing the Capote film is what finally induced me to read it, but I suppose that must be true. I had seen the film the previous weekend, bought this book during the following week, and just this past weekend, devoured it in all of two days.
Capote's masterpiece tells the story of the senseless, brutal killing of a rural Kansas family in 1959. It is beautifully written from start to finish -- in an understated way. If you come into this experience, as I did, conscious of the narcissism of the author, you might be surprised at the writing style. It is very humble, no Joycean or Nabokovian literary showing off. The story is paramount; the author does an amazing job of staying invisible, and respecting that story.
Respect is the feeling that is conveyed throughout the book. The telling is very respectful of the Clutter family; you learn of what remarkable people they were, even as they met their ends. The author is also fundamentally respectful of the people of the town, and of the local law enforcement. The book is not without its implied questioning of the judicial process, but again, I greatly appreciated the empathy and respect that pervaded the book.
This fundamental respect for human dignity even, in a more disturbing way, pervades even the discussion of the lives of the killers. The author candidly relates the biographies of these two men. On one level, this conveys an understanding of how they came to be what they were, but on a deeper level, it's all still a mystery. Left unanswered, still, is what really causes a man to be a killer. There is a great sense of tragedy throughout the relating of their formative lives -- perhaps not a respect for who they eventually were, but a respect for who they *could* have been.
Extremely unsettling is the sheer randomness of it all. The chain of events that causes the Clutter family to be killed is so random, so out-of-the-blue. Capote conveys how thin is the line between everything all seeming well and orderly in the world, and disaster striking out of nowhere.
Also coming through very clearly in this book is a cultural moment in time. You read it, feeling that this rural Kansas society is a vanished world. It's a stoic, God-fearing community, but the urban Capote betrays little condescension toward it. Quite the opposite; he seems duly impressed that the only reaction from the crowd to the killers' transference back to the town is one of silence -- no attempted violence, no shouted insults. The restraint and dignity of the townspeople amid this tragedy seems foreign to modern eyes. I found myself liking these people very much, despite my own preference for urban living.
But nothing undoes the basic feeling of tragedy that pervades the book. The author sifts through an incredible amount of detail about the crime; information that could only have been gleaned with a tremendous amount of cooperation from the killers themselves. There are details here that we could never have known about unless both killers had related them in their own separate interviews: details both of the crime itself, and of their activities, and further crimes and near-crimes, when on the lam.
The final portrait is of two worlds colliding -- a dysfunctional, violent world amid the undercurrents of society, rising up to strike the normal, orderly world of the Clutter family. It leaves the reader feeling as though nothing can be truly safe in our world, as long as the mysteries behind this story remain unresolved.
** PRODUCT UPDATE ** In early 2013 the Modern Library (a division of Random House) reissued four Capote works: a new PORTRAITS AND OBSERVATIONS, a combined OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, the collected SHORT STORIES and this one -- IN COLD BLOOD. Dust jackets are in harmonizing colors and common typography (see product photos); the books themselves are hardbound, in classic ML beige. A good price, too. Of course, IN COLD BLOOD is still available in paperback, too, as it has been ever since the mid-1960s.
The magnificence of "In Cold Blood" doesn't lie in the subject matter but in its treatment. There are--unfortunately--more depraved criminals and more elaborate police investigations detailed in a great many "true crime" accounts. But I doubt that any of them is as well written as "In Cold Blood."
I haul my copy out every 2-3 years just to remind myself how wonderful the rhythms and nuances of the American language can be at the hands of a master. I am totally drawn into the lives of the prosperous and completely unsuspecting Clutter family of western Kansas and the two drifters, Perry and Dick, who by themselves didn't amount to much but together proved lethal that fall night in 1959.
A trivia note: Capote's research assistant on this book was Nell Harper) Lee, who shortly after would become famous as the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
I'd recommend Gerald Clarke's excellent biography "Capote" to learn about this one-of-a-kind book, its creation, reception, and how it affected the author's life.
PRODUCT UPDATE (2012): The hardcover edition of IN COLD BLOOD with a photograph of the Clutter house on the cover is a quality edition issued by the Folio Society of Great Britain. I wish I could elaborate in a separate review but as you can see, I've already filed one review and Amazon will not let me file a separate one, despite the fact that this book has 31 (!) different formats. I will say that the Folio edition has a very intelligent introduction, and that it is the only version of IN COLD BLOOD I know of that has illustrations. They consist of black-and-white photographs of the Clutter family, the killers, the lawmen on the case, Garden City and the home village of Holcomb during that period. I own the volume and like all Folio society books, it is very well manufactured but not cheap.
Early in the morning of Sunday, November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men committed a horrific crime that gained national attention. They slaughtered four members of the Clutter family – Herb, a prosperous and well-respected farmer, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. The killers had slain all four Clutters with a shotgun; they had also slit Herb Clutter’s throat.
The day after the slayings, the “New York Times” printed a news article that brought the crime to national attention. Author Truman Capote read the article and decided to write a serialized account of it for the “New Yorker” magazine. That series of articles became the basis of Capote’s now famous book “In Cold Blood,” which tells the story of how two ex-convicts, acting on a tip from a fellow criminal, traveled 400 miles across Kansas in order to rob the Clutters of a rumored large sum of cash. It became a huge best-seller and spawned what Capote claimed was an entirely new genre letters: the “non-fiction novel.”
I first read “In Cold Blood” in 1971. It was required reading for a Modern American Literature college course I was then taking. At the time, I remember being very impressed with it. I thought it was a very disturbing story that was also extremely well told. I found myself held spellbound by Capote’s tale of these two men who journeyed through Kansas intending to commit a senseless, barbaric crime.
Last month, I read “In Cold Blood” for only the second time in the past 45 years. I must admit, I had forgotten just how good this book is. Although the crime is now nearly six decades past, it has lost none of its impact because of Truman Capote’s writing. The entire scene – the wheat fields of Kansas, the close-knit small town of Holcomb, the home in which the Clutters lived and died – is brought alive through Capote’s masterful prose. The same is true for the dreary and depraved worlds through which Hickock and Smith traveled as they sought to escape justice.
In recent years, new information has come to light, which has caused some people to question the accuracy and authenticity of “In Cold Blood.” Much of the criticism has to do with Capote’s “fictionalizing” many scenes in the book. It’s important to remember that Capote was always clear in claiming that “In Cold Blood” was a non-fiction novel, in which he used fictional situations to tell a true story.
I have a long and abiding interest in true crime books. That interest was “kick-started” in the spring of my sophomore year in college, when I first read “In Cold Blood.” To this day, it remains the very best true crime book I’ve ever read. Most highly recommended
on August 6, 2013
A classic, and I bought a 1965 edition. I am more than thrilled with my purchase. The dealer listed the book as being in good condition. As a personal collector I think it is wonderful. You can trust this dealer. Extremely fast delivery as a plus.
on July 1, 2006
For a while I used to read true crime pulp books. Whatever perverted itch was being scratched has long ago disappeared, and so it was only (of course) the film Capote --actually, the beautiful reading he does in the movie--that caused me to buy this. What a masterpiece. So often I read books, including by so-called acclaimed authors (try McEwan's Saturday, as the most recent example), and there are just so many false steps, so many places where the reader just feels the author struggling, working, trying to deserve "acclaimed", but not quite a master of his game. NONE OF THAT HERE. There is really no false step but the very wonderful (and very rare) experience for a reader of placing oneself entirely in the hands of a master at his craft as he carries us through the book. It is not about that horrible November night, it is about America, aboutpersons from different walks (but for the grace of God, etc.), and as much as anything about the great ironies of life. A truly profound and poetic work.
on December 27, 2005
and even if he had never written another book, this would have been all he ever needed to produce. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, stunning. You can SEE the places he describes; you can FEEL the terror of the Clutter family on that dreadful night; you can LIVE the events as they happen and share the elation of the detectives when they finally catch their men. Somehow the women affected me most deeply; Mrs Clutter and Nancy; Mrs Clutter because she was such a dependent, tortured soul and Nancy because she was so young and innocent; she had not even begun to live.
Of course, Kenyon too; the details of his murder are terribly sad, as are the details of the entire family. I cannot imagine what they were thinking; I feel they truly had no idea what was to be their fate...
The description of the murders and the reactions of the victims, added to the commentary of Dick and Perry all lend an air of unreality; could this have actually happened?
Why these people? How could this horror have happened to such a quiet, productive family? Or anyone? How can there be any people who could conceive and carry out such an atrocity? The descriptions of the condition and treatment of the bodies afterwards in the funeral home made my hair stand on end...and the dreafully sad mental image of the farm itself; the family gone and the house deserted.
Dick and Perry are such consummate sociopaths it is difficult to feel anything about their ultimate fate, which they richly deserved, but I felt that Mr Capote was somewhat sympathetic toward them.
His descriptions of Holcomb itself are amazing; they provide details of this terribly bleak landscape and it's inhabitants, (the postmistress, Myrt, I found to be extremely irritating in her smug comments in the days following the murders) which make the story all the more haunting. I am no stranger to homicides, having been an avid true crime reader for years, but this one really stands out, due mostly to the incredible writing skills of Mr Capote.
You will think about it for days afterwards and remember it for years to come whether you re-read it or not; it stays with you.
If you have never read it, you owe it to yourself; if you have read it, I strongly suggest seeing the movie, it is a masterpiece, owing its success to Mr Capote.
on March 19, 2006
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a detailed true account of a multiple family murder and its consequences. It starts out in a small town called Holcomb, Kansas. The towns everyday routines are thrown off kilter when the towns popular Clutter family, a family of four, is murdered in their home by unknown people. No one can understand why such a likeable family was murdered, especially since it appears there was no motive.
Capote gives us a detailed look into the two killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hicock, minds and lives. He tells us what led up to the murders and what happened after the murders. He also tells us what is happening in the lives of the investigators that are on the case and how the two stories come together.
This was my first time ever reading a Truman Capote book and I must say it grabbed me from the beginning to the end. I love to read true crime books but this one was set apart by the ones that I normally read becuase of its "novel style". I had to stop myself from reading a couple of times to remind myself that this was indeed a true story.
What I liked about In Cold Blood was the fact that even though you know early on what the outcome of book is, it is still pretty unpredictable. The way Capote tells the story is brilliant. The way he explains the two murderers lives from begining to end really helps you understand the killers even though you may not understand why or how someone could do what they did. I will readily admit that there was a time or two that I even felt sorry for the killers. This is a book that I will definatly keep on my bookshelf and read it again. I have a feeling that by reading it a second time I will even get more out of it.
on February 17, 2016
I know I'll buck most of the trend here, and it's only a personal view, but it was far too wordy and rambling for me. I like to cut to the chase with true crime, and this didn't do it for me. I think I may have been spoilt by watching "Capote" recently because, after that, I had high hopes and feel severely let down. Again, that's just me.
on October 16, 2016
In Cold Blood is definitely a well written book and I had been wanting to read it for a year or so, but I don’t think I realized how slowly the plot was going to go. Capote added a lot of details which makes sense because it is necessary to know as much as you can about the family and murderers, but it just made each part drag on and seem like there was never going to be an end. Having all of the details was helpful, but not always necessary, like reading about Nancy’s boy troubles, or moving around her schedule to help a girl learn to bake a pie. The details about how different Dick and Perry, the murderers, were different was beneficial because it helped you try to understand their motive for the acts that they committed. I think that Capote not coming in as someone who interviewed people and maintaining his position as a narrator did not help the over-detailing issue. Overall, I think it is a very well written book for it to be one of the first books of its kind, but I do believe that in some places it is too detailed and just drags on for many pages before it gets back to the point.