So real you can smell the blood

In Cold Blood
By Truman Capote

In Cold Blood is an extraordinary book. Friends of literature know its claim to fame – journalism with a novelist’s approach – but the experience of reading it is much more profound than a simple tagline. In bringing together the two worlds of reportage and fiction, Capote is clearly a talented interviewer, researcher and writer. Most of us are blessed if we can succeed in just one of those roles.

The book tells the story of how two young men robbed and murdered a family in a small American town in 1959. In my opinion, Capote’s account is so compelling for focusing on two areas: the shockwaves sent through the community by this awful event, and the psychological profiles of the two killers. Let’s take the first focus. The voices of the community are one of the most memorable aspects of this book, whether it’s the hard line taken by the postmistress or the devastation of the victims’ friends. You can hear these characters as real people. Indeed they are so well drawn that you hit a paradox: they are as well characterised as a novel’s protagonists, which the writer has invented and spent time bending to his will – and yet these are flesh-and-blood people who did indeed live through the nightmare that struck this small community. Capote, then, has a talent for conducting a great interview and then capturing it within his text.

Now let’s turn to his portrayal of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Capote’s masterstroke is his decision not to reveal their motive early on. By doing so, he creates tension and chills. The killers are characterised so perfectly that you feel what they feel, even to the extent of being able to understand how they could come to commit such an awful crime. Capote delves into their respective histories and uses them to craft a chilling portrayal of the pair of them. Their statements – reproduced at length towards the end of the book – are compelling. It’s like reading a detective’s files. In fact, it’s better: it’s like interviewing murder suspects yourself and hearing their ghastly admissions.

One criticism of the book is that Capote fails to convey the killers’ long wait to execution. His attempt includes telling the stories of a few other death-row inmates, but this detracts from the tight story he has told until that point. I can understand why he might want to stretch out the close, as it happened in real life, but he doesn’t quite achieve what I suspect he wanted to. But that is a minor blot on an exquisite canvas. I suspect that In Cold Blood will remain an important book for some time.

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