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. 

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.