In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did.”

Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, delves into the minds of two petty thieves: the charming and ruthless Dick, and the sensitive and rash Perry. One night in western Kansas, they tied up four members of the Clutter family, then shot each of them from point blank range in the head. They didn’t take anything of significant value from the house. They didn’t even know the family. Why? Why did they do this?

If you are expecting an astounding hunt of the killers, this is not it. The investigation just doesn’t have enough to go on, so they follow leads to dead-ends over and over again. The best parts of In Cold Blood are when it becomes a character study, exploring what made two men, one of whom seemed to grow up in a caring family, commit first-degree murder with no apparant motive. These are confused, angry men, so if you have ever tried to summarise your motives for just about any difficult decision, you will go into this knowing that there can be no easy or even clear answers.

One of the interesting things about storytelling is that audiences voyeurs. Once we’ve begun watching, we have no choice in the matter: we are locked in, watching situations that in any other context would make us feel guilty for impinging on people’s privacy. That’s why this book is so uncomfortable to read, and also why it’s so thrilling: we simply shouldn’t be seeing any of this. The details from In Cold Blood (purportedly) happened. That complicates the reader-story dynamic considerably.

Truman Capote makes a claim of objectivety, and then examines situations which he has no way of assuring us actually happened, even explicitly dramatising his subject’s thought. We aren’t only thinking about ‘characters’ now, we’re thinking about the truth that a family was brutally murdered, and this tragedy has now been adapted for our entertainment, and some details here were surely added for dramatic effect.

This attempt at a different way of investigating and displaying the truth feels occasionally contrived. Yet it’s above all entertaining, and that’s a confusing compliment to give a book that is meant to be about objective cruelty.

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