by Truman Capote
Wow. This was quite a compelling read. Like most readers I knew the story beforehand but it didn't matter. Capote has written an outstanding piece of non-fiction, or "creative non-fiction" as he called it. He writes about a real life multiple murder in rural Kansas but in a style that explores the humanity of it. Yes, the goodness and usefulness of the family that was slaughtered but also the humanness of the killers. It is compelling because Capote is able to bring all characters to life. One effect is that the murderers are not the usual distant cardboard monsters. They are also not the product of a slack-jawed liberal writer striving to make excuses for them. Instead, In Cold Blood explores their lives- and everyone they have crossed paths with- in extraordinary human detail.
Never have I come to know so many characters so intimately: each member of the Clutter family, the local sheriff, the killers, the Clutter family's friends and loved ones, state investigators, etc. It's written so well that I feel like I met them during that aweful time.
Here is an example of Capote's ability to combine the results of extensive interviews with the people involved in the case and his creative abilities. In this part, the two killers, Perry and Dick, are chatting. Perry is telling Dick of a dream he had the night before. In it Perry is being attacked by a snake. Perry cuts the story short whe he realized Dick was uninterested and would likely not understand the rest.
"Dick said, 'So? The snake swallows you? Or what?"
"'Never mind. It's not important.' (But it was! The finale was of great importance, a source of private joy. He'd once told it to his friend Willie-Jay; he had described to him the towering bird, the yellow 'sort of parrot.' Of course, Willie-Jay was different- delicate minded, 'a saint.' He'd understood. But Dick? Dick might laugh. And that Perry could not abide: anyone's ridiculing the parrot, which had first flown into his dreams when he was seven years old, a hated, hating half-breed child living in a California orphanage run by nuns- shrouded disciplinarians who whipped him for wetting his bed. It was after one of these beatings, one he could never forget ('She woke me up. She had a flashlight, and she hit me with it. Hit me and hit me. And when the flashlight broke, she went on hitting me in the dark.'), that the parrot appeared, arrived while he slept, a bird 'taller than Jesus yellow like a sunflower,' a warrior angel who blinded the nuns with its beak, fed upon her eyes, slaughtered them as they 'pleaded for mercy,' then so gently lifted him, enfolded him, winged him away to 'paradise.'
"As the years went by, the particular torments from which the bird delivered him altered; other- older children, his father, a faithless girl, a sergeant he'd known in the Army- replaced the nuns, but the parrot remained, a hovering avenger...")
I think this is a good example of Capote's mode of "creative non-fiction." He sat with Perry Smith- the real Perry Smith- for hours upon hours each visit for years. In fact, Capote sat with everyone involved in this case and nearly everyone in Holcolm, Kansas and the surrounding towns. The result is a writer (who was already a sucessful novelist and journalist) who knew all parties so intimately that it was nearly impossible to write without compassion for and understanding of the humanity revealed in this single event. What we have in In Cold Blood is not simply a re-telling of a heinous crime, but a very deep exploration of the lives of those effected by the event: victims and murderers, their families and friends, a confounded and eventually triumphant law enforcent, the local postal worker... You name it.
Of course, the book does pose problems for those who tend to cling to factual truth. But there are other kinds of truth that artists try to reveal.
I highly recommend this book.