Story of the Month, July 2009

One of only a couple covers for the book In Cold Blood. Thanks to Marshall University for the use of this image.

One of only a couple covers for the book In Cold Blood. Thanks to Marshall University for the use of this image.

When I started taking classes at Columbia College, I thought that all I wrote was fiction. Then I took a class called “Creative Nonfiction,” which surveyed different nonfiction forms: the memoir (and, in a similar vein, the autobiography), the personal essay, journalism–in its many forms, and the nonfiction novel. As an example of the last form, we were assigned to read Truman Capote’s epic nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. And it was reading this book–as well as what I learned from taking the Creative Nonfiction class–that helped me realize that I, myself, am a creative nonfiction writer. It changed the way that I look at my writing. I guess you could say that it changed my life. And not only did it help my writing, but the story also wrecked me…in a wonderful way. That is why I have chosen Capote’s In Cold Blood as That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for July 2009.

Allow me to start off by saying that In Cold Blood is by no means a gory or horrific book. (And neither is the movie adaptation of the book, though rumors about it would say otherwise). Although it started off as a story about the effects of murder on a small town, Capote’s book slowly evolved into a story about the overlooked humanity of murderers. It explores the murders of the four Clutter family members in Holcomb, Kansas in November 1959, how the community reacted to them, how the murderers were caught and tried, and finally why the murders even took place. It is a true account of real events.

The book begins with a sweeping view of Holcomb in Finney County, Kansas (which also includes Garden City, another town often referred to in the book). Then it zooms in to two seemingly separate plotlines: that of Herb Clutter and his wife and two children on their farm in Holcomb, and that of two ex-convicts, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock as they’re driving. Then the two storylines dovetail, and we discover that the two latter “characters” were driving to Holcomb to murder the Clutters. Any motivation to commit the murders, besides that of robbing the family, is still unclear. This unanswered question, and the pursuit of answering it, is a driving force throughout the book.

I believe that Capote’s research for this nonfiction novel actually helped “solve” the crime. (If you’ve seen the 2005 movie Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, then you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t seen this movie, then I highly recommend that you do so. As the movie is not an adaptation of the book–and thus won’t spoil your reading of it–its depiction of Capote’s life and how he went about writing this book will only enhance your reading of it.) Capote used his interviewing skills as a writer to probe into the psyches Perry and Dick–but mostly Perry. He befriended them in order to learn their motives for killing the Clutters. His book wouldn’t be complete until he knew why the murders took place, or until Perry and Dick were either found not guilty of or executed for the four counts of murder. But his blossoming friendship with the men made it psychologically exhausting to continue writing, as well as to wait for their sentence. This put Capote in a difficult position. But, if it weren’t for these interviews, we’d never have learned what made the charming Dick and the pitiful Perry commit murder. And although it all made for a thrilling book, Capote’s involvement in the Clutter case took a serious toll on the writer; he was never able to finish writing another book.

As a writer, the fact that In Cold Blood essentially ruined Capote really gets to me. He knew that his book would be huge, but it ended up being so huge that he could never top it. This nonfiction novel, this work of New Journalism*, changed the way that the literary world viewed nonfiction and journalism. Capote used his skills as a fiction writer (including a strong sense of voice, scene, dialogue, point of view, vantage point) to tell the story of two murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, which he pieced together through first-person interviews with these men. And he told the story in a lively and dramatic way, a quality we’d expect from a fiction story. This book was revolutionary to the world of writing.

But, more importantly, this book evokes a multitude of emotions. Most noticeably, for me, was the sympathy I started feeling for both Perry and Dick, but mostly Perry. Through Capote’s interviews with Perry, the former was able to weave Perry’s back story into the larger story of In Cold Blood. It flushed out the story, as well as Perry’s “character.” He had a rough life, growing up with rather unstable parents that separated while he was still young. He was always in and out of jail. He had no real relationships with anyone in his life, including his family, except for a rocky relationship with his father and a twisted friendship with his prisonmate Dick. And Perry’s physical appearance warrants sympathy, too; after a motorcycle accident that shattered his leg, Perry always walked with a noticeable limp that left him in constant pain and with an aspirin addiction. His life was miserable, plain and simple. And even though he did a terrible thing–or, should I say, four terrible things–I can’t help but be sympathetic toward him.

In the movie Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote says to Perry, “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster. Always. And I don’t want that.” And, somehow, Capote prevented this. At no point in this book did I hold contempt for Perry. In fact, I always pitied him. I even found myself wanting to reach out to him, which is probably the same way that Capote felt. But my sympathy for Perry alarmed me. Why am I sympathetic toward a murderer? How could I condone his behavior? But, the more I thought about it, I realized that sympathy and acceptance are two different things. Capote depicted Perry’s humanity on the page for me, and I was receptive to it. But Capote also depicted the horrible things that Perry did, which I don’t approve of. I can like Perry as a person without defending his actions. But that puts me in a strange ethical position. I never thought that I could find a murderer likeable, but Perry proved me wrong. And when Perry meets his fate at the end of the book, there was no way that I could hold back the steady stream of tears that had been collecting since I first met him at the beginning of the book. Somehow, thought I still don’t quite know how, Capote helped me see Perry for something other than a monster.

 So, if you pick up In Cold Blood, be prepared for a book that will rock you to the core. It will change the way you look at reading and writing. It will change the way you look at murder, murderers, victims, investigators, and the entire court system. And, if you let it, it will make you question your morals and the way you think. So be prepared for the possibility that you’ll sympathize with the murderers, especially Perry, and that you’ll be left questioning your own thoughts about murder, redemption, and justice. After all, great books make you see the world, and yourself, differently. And Capote’s brilliant story is no exception. 

* Basically, New Journalism is a way of writing nonfiction material in an interesting, engaging way that reads like a fun fictional story and is loaded with the author’s voice. Some of the first works of this writing movement were John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
Published in: on July 2, 2009 at 1:38 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Wow! You really summed up In Cold Blood. I run a book discussion group for a local library. We just recently read In Cold Blood. You hit on so many of the main ideas that we talked about in our discussion. Keep up the good work!

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