In Cold Blood

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While rereading this for the Literary Darkness group read on Goodreads, I also rewatched the 2005 movie for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote.

While this made me realise how much the movie had short-changed the novel in its meticulous depiction of the Clutter family murders in Kansas in the late 1950s, it also made me aware of a fatal flaw of the novel: Capote, omniscient narrator and social darling of the literary set in New York of the day, had all but erased his own presence from the pages of In Cold Blood.

Or tried to. The result is a curious dissonance between the largely dispassionate pages of the novel, and Capote’s own over-the-top aggrandisement, not to mention both his personal and professional stake in this particular story. On the other hand, one can look at In Cold Blood as a supreme achievement in self-effacement.

Ultimately the result is curiously distancing and sanitising; one never really connects with any of the real-life ‘characters’ here, from the apple pie goodness of the proto-American Dream Clutters to the grim ugliness of the killers themselves – both physically and in the sad details of their wretched lives.

As to Capote’s contention that he had ‘invented’ a new literary form, namely the ‘non-fiction novel’, this was inextricably intertwined with his own relentless self-marketing. Certainly Capote did pave the way for similar journalistic-type novels such as Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night in 1968, which won the Pulitzer Prize (which Capote apparently hankered after for his own novel).

If only Capote had had the foresight, or the balls, to write the book from his own point of view, to recount the personal toll of those many hours spent interviewing the charismatic and deeply damaged Perry on Death Row.

Of course, this is a fairly modern take on the novel and the events it describes (transcribes?), largely inspired by Gerald Clarke’s biography, which also formed the basis for Bennet Miller’s movie.

From a technical point of view, In Cold Blood is a masterclass in non-fiction writing from a suspense point of view. Capote’s writing style is quite muted, but not so bland as to lack a distinctive voice. Also, the writing is quite pared-down and functional, which only adds to the tension.

Curiously, I found the ending to be quite rushed. The actual death-by-hanging of both Dick and Perry is barely given a page or two in the course of this nearly 400-page novel (the most horrific detail is that both killers took up to 20 minutes to die after they were hung).

And the final scene of Dewey at the Clutters’ graveside, where he just happens to bump into Susan Kidwell, just screams literary contrivance. What a disappointingly conventional way to end a novel that ostensibly was meant to be a new template for the possibility of fictive discourse in illuminating the hidden corners of a real-life tragedy.

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