In Cold Blood

Genre: True Crime, Nonfiction
Setting: Kansas, late 1950s-1960s
Pages: 343

In Cold Blood is a true crime novel detailing the murder of four members of the Clutter family at their home in rural Kansas, and the ensuing capture, trial, and ultimate execution of their killers.

While reading this novel, I was wrought by many conflicting feelings. As such, I won’t be breaking this review up into my normal sections of “The Good” and “The Bad.”

First of all, this is a true crime novel so the events described occurred, for the most part, even if not always exactly as they are recorded in the book. There is no wondering who committed the crime or if they ended up being apprehended because the events reached their conclusion before the book was written. Personally, I had to contend with the urge to just go on the internet and look up the whole case before finishing the book.  What was the point, then, of turning this story about the brutal murder of a family into a novel, rather than simply a true account? Poetic embellishment of course.

This is where a lot of my issues with this book come from. Truman Capote paints a fairly ordinary portrait of a family who was highly regarded by their community. This can be reasonably believed as an accurate view of the Clutters because Capote interviewed many people from the town who knew them, either intimately or just as a passing acquaintance.

We get a far greater wealth of detail on the two murderers, particularly Perry Smith.

mild spoilers ahead

The reader is given a privileged view into Perry’s innermost thoughts all throughout the novel. Before he commits the crime, later while he is on the run, and then finally when he has been captured and imprisoned on death row. I am very troubled by Capote’s obvious bias towards Perry. He clearly found Perry Smith to be more sympathetic than his companion, and throughout the entire novel the reader is shown thought processes that make him out to be quite a sensitive soul compared to his brutish companion Dick Hickock.

The reality, however, is that Capote could only have made these judgments from his interviews with Perry. He had to take Perry’s word for himself. Between the two criminals, Perry is the one without any friends or family. The harsh reality is, Perry is the one who actually committed all 4 murders. He is the one who shot each member of the Clutter family to death. Given his unpopularity among everyone, including his own family, and the fact that he carried out the murders, I think it is possible that Capote was being emotionally manipulated by Perry Smith. The novel is clearly written to evoke sympathy for Perry, but I truly do not feel he deserves it, and I feel that this cheapens the lives of the innocent people who were murdered by him.

Any story dealing with such grim subject matter is bound to evoke strong negative emotions, however, there are some very worthy aspects of this novel. Truman Capote’s writing style is very good, even if I hesitate to use the word “enjoyable,” in this particular case. I also think he does an admirable job of situating such a horrible event in the greater scheme of life. Despite the senselessness of the crime (it truly was a murder in cold blood), I didn’t finish the novel with the sense of confusion and despair that I felt while reading most of it. His insertion of the opinions of psychoanalysts and his observations on the lives of the people in the town after the capture of the murderers helped me come to peace with the fact that sometimes there simply isn’t a motive or reason for terrible things. Psychological accidents occur, and they are as much a part of the pattern of life as anything else.

I would recommend this book to any curious and bold-hearted readers. 

The Casual Vacancy

casual-vacancy

Genre: Fiction
Setting: Pagford, United Kingdom
Pages: 503

The Casual Vacancy is a witty and gripping social commentary on contemporary British society, played out in the fictional town of Pagford, an idyllic little village in England where various types of unrest are fomenting beneath the town’s sunny and charming exterior.  

Barry Fairbrother, one of Pagford’s parish councillors, dies unexpectedly leaving a casual vacancy that various town members seek to fill for their own personal or political gain. The novel tracks how the conflict over the council seat, and the underlying issue of the area known as the Fields, affects the lives of the residents of Pagford, young and old, rich or poor, and shows how small behaviors can resonate and have big consequences.

The Good: Rowling is a fantastic writer, and while this novel is utterly different in subject matter and scope than her famous Harry Potter series, her style is easily recognized within these pages. She proves her satirical prowess with this novel, and her wit in exposing the flaws in the Pagford residents’ behaviors and thought patterns is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Each character viewed individually seems so uniquely human. Rowling really knows how to make the reader appreciate gray characters. This book acts as a mirror that can be held up to recognize parts of our own personalities that we might rather not admit to having. I personally don’t believe that J.K. Rowling ever had anything to prove, but for those who were unsure whether or not she’d be able to pull of a more “adult-themed” novel, I imagine with this book their fears can be laid to rest.

The Bad: My main complaint with this book is that she was a little overzealous in creating dysfunctional families and relationships. I understand that it wouldn’t be very interesting to focus on healthy romantic or family relationships and that struggle and conflict are necessary to drive narrative, HOWEVER, in a book that is populated by a considerably large cast of characters, there is not one single healthy relationship between a husband and wife or (less surprisingly) between teenagers. Instances of infidelity, domestic abuse, or dissatisfaction in romantic partnerships are all real issues, but Rowling’s decision to exclude the presence of even a single happy relationship causes the novel to traverse beyond the land of realism into the slightly ridiculous.

Would recommend? Absolutely! The merits of this book far outweigh any scruples I have with it