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 House of the Dead

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Genre: Realism, Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Classic Literature
Setting: Siberia, Russian Federation, 1850s
Pages: 368

The House of the Dead or Notes from the House of the Dead is a semi-autobigraphical work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky about life in prison in Siberian Russia. Dostoyevsky tells his story through the eyes of the convict Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a Russian nobleman who is sentenced to penal labor in Siberia for murdering his wife. The author’s trademarks of deep philosophical musings and his speculations on the psychology of human beings are deeply rooted in this novel and lay the groundwork for future authors, philosophers, and psychologists (the formal study of this last discipline only developed some 20 years after this novel was published!)

The Good: Dostoyevsky was in a situation nearly identical to his narrator’s: a nobleman serving a sentence of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. However, our narrator Aleksandr Petrovich was sentenced for murdering his wife, while Dostoyevsky was imprisoned for political crimes. The authenticity of the novel is its greatest asset as it makes all the different stories and accounts within the narrative all the more gripping. I find Dostoyevsky second to none when it comes to inserting meaningful psychological and philosophical musings within a fictional framework (keeping in mind, of course, that this particular story is very much nonfiction). There is something refreshing and quite rare about an author speaking their own truth in a way that bares their soul. While The House of the Dead isn’t as polished as his later works, it is easy to see how he became an inspiration to so many future authors and philosophers.

One glistening gem in this novel that I found very endearing, was the chapter describing the convicts’ theatrical production during the holidays. I’ve always been a fan of theatre and I have a great affinity for Russian theatre and ballet in particular. Dostoyevsky describes the amateur production in extensive detail, and I admit I was thrilled. In those moments of performance and spectating, the prisoners’ joy was my own.

The Bad: As I mentioned before, the novel is a bit unpolished. The House of the Dead was originally pieced together from a series of different notes and letters Dostoyevsky had wrote about his time in prison, and as such theme drives the narrative rather than a specific storyline. There are an exceeding number of repetitious moments or thoughts. The narrator also offers a few contradictory points of view on certain subjects, but this I attribute to the emotional nature of documenting such an experience, and the varying states of mind the author must have inhabited as he wrote the novel.

*A Special Note on the Text*: This story was written quite a long time ago. Knowledge on various topics has evolved since then, including our attitudes and opinions on these topics. It is important not to reject the worth of an entire novel over a few problematic elements. In order to understand this novel, the reader most endeavor to understand the time and place it was written and strive to their fullest extent to place themselves in the position of the narrator. Most obvious and frequent among the outdated ideas is Dostoyevsky’s apparent subscription to Physiognomy. Although it is never named or explicitly described in the novel, it is obvious that he judges people’s characters largely and immediately based on their physical appearance. Approach this novel with empathy and patience and you will not be disappointed.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Genre: non-fiction, true crime, very Southern Gothic
Setting: Savannah, Georgia 1980s
Pages: 386

The true story of how the author took up part time residence in Savannah, Georgia shortly before one of his most esteemed new acquaintances in the neighborhood is charged with murder. Berendt traces the case and the lives of those involved in intimate and entertaining  detail.

The good: Damned enjoyable read. John Berendt sure knows how to spin a yarn (the work is nonfiction but for the sake of storytelling slight fabrications were obvious and permissible). He paints vivid pictures of both Savannah and its inhabitants. The players in this one are dramatic, bizarre, and fascinating. Berendt is an excellent writer which makes this book a very easy read for those of you who have a difficult time committing to a book long term (or picking one up to begin with).

The bad: Once again, this is a matter of personal taste. Although on the whole I found the anecdotes about the various characters entertaining and fresh, there were times I felt the story could have done without them. They were fine setting the scene in Part I, but once we really had a main character established in Jim Williams they started to drag the pace a little towards the end. For the most part I would only clip out little bits here and there, when the story was entertaining or important but had too much flourish. In particular, I found the scene with Chablis in the chapter “Black Minuet,” almost entirely unnecessary-useless to the story, contributing no character development, and at times painfully awkward.

Random Tidbit: As I was reading, the characterization of Jim Williams caused me to think of Kevin Spacey ( a la House of Cards). He just had flavors of Frank Underwood about him. I did a cursory google search to find out more about the crime and saw there was an IMDb page for a movie version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Wouldn’t ya know it, Kevin Spacey was cast as Jim Williams! Which seems a little strange thinking about it now because the film was from 1997 and I can’t imagine Spacey playing a man in his 50s, over 20 years ago. Might have to give this one a watch.