Monday, September 16, 2013

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Originally published January 1966 by Random House
Source: this one is mine

Publisher's Summary:
On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

Five years, four months and twenty-nine days later, on April 14, 1965, Richard Eugene Hickock, aged thirty-three, and Perry Edward Smith, aged thirty-six, were hanged for the crime on a gallows in a warehouse in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas.

History of the Book:
When The New York Times published a piece about the murders in November, 1959, Capote was interested enough to investigate the murders. Capote brought his  friend Harper Lee ( To Kill a Mockingbird) to help gain the confidence of the locals in Kansas. After the criminals were found, tried, and convicted, Capote conducted personal interviews with both Smith and Hickock.

In Cold Blood was first published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker before it was published as a novel. Capote insisted throughout his life that every word of the book was fact but, over the years, many people have disputed this. Capote may not have been the first to write a non-fiction novel but it certainly seems to have changed the way we think about them.

My Thoughts:
In Cold Blood is Omaha's 2013 selection for a community read. It's a book that's been on my nightstand for a long time, a book I felt like I "should" read. For some reason, though, it just never seemed to be the right time to pick it up. Until everyone else was reading it. Now I'm looking forward to discussing it with others, Capote's writing style, the way he portrayed two cold-blooded killers as complex humans, the veracity of the details.

I'm not hung up with whether or not every bit of what Capote wrote as fact is, actually, fact. But then, I'm not reading it in 1966 believing it to be a complete work of nonfiction. I'm far more interested in the way Capote portrayed Holcomb, Kansas, its denizens and their reactions to the crime.
'The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there." Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them."
I'm more interested in the relationship between the two killers, their relationships with their families and the impact those relationships had on both men, and the way Capote takes the reader deep into Smith's and Hickok's minds. Smith, in particularly, comes off as both a sympathetic and heartless person who, despite his hard-scrabble life, might still have made something of himself but chose not to, preferring instead to play the victim. It's rare to read a book, fiction or nonfiction, where the "bad guys" are so nuanced.

Richard "Dick" Hickok and Perry Smith
These days we have grown hardened to crime; it takes a lot to shock us collectively. If the Clutter murders occurred in 2013, it would make the national news for about one day and then disappear in the wake of a more heinous crime. But it would still stun and terrify a community as small and isolated as Holcomb and that may be one of the reasons this story still resonates with so many readers more than fifty years after it happened.

Banned Books:
The book was banned for a time in Savannah, Georgia when a parent complained about the sex, violence and profanity but the ban was reversed when other parents complained. In 2011, when a Los Angeles-area Advanced Placement English teacher tried to add the book to her curriculum, it was again challenged for the same reasons but the school board ultimately approved its use.

I had planned to read this one a little more slowly but when Sheila of Book Journey had to move up her annual Banned Book Week coverage, I decided to read this one sooner so I could help start to get the word out early about banned books. The official Banned Book Week is next week but to get yourself fired about to read a book for that week, check out more of the posts at Book Journey!

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