Tuesday, 18 May 2010

In Cold Blood - the killing or the telling?

Written in 1966, In Cold Blood chronicles the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959 and the investigation and subsequent trial of the perpetrators. It is considered to be one of the first 'True Crime' novels and much of the book focuses on the killers, their lives, relationship and imprisonment.

In Cold Blood grabbed me and I zoomed through it. Not because I cared about the killers, or to be honest the tragic Clutters. The reader knows who committed the crime and that they got caught. As I read I wanted to try and comprehend the dynamic behind the killers, how they had come to the point at which they could commit such a horrible act and why? About half way though I actually stopped and thought about what was enthralling me in this book. Would the story eventually sate a need to know every detail and see into the mind of a killer; to comprehend violence and criminality in some neat equation. Why didn't I care more about the family? Or the killers? In Cold Blood was a forerunner for the media speculation that fills nearly every violent case - the call for gory details.

In Cold Blood does an excellent job of witholding the gory details and maintaining interest. The book is beautifully written and I wish more 'true crime' writers would put such effort into their script. In Cold Blood is also an excellent drawing together of testimonies and stories that attempts to enlighten us about the complex relationship between the killers. When the psychologists are finally involved they recite some of the babble heard on today's cop shows and now considered common knowledge. At the time of the trial of course this is a new idea and isn't given much credence - it also doesn't seem quite accurate and I found myself desperate to hear a modern criminal psychologists opinion.

This is Kansas in the 60s and to a modern British reader the capital punishment at the end of the novel seems barbaric - far more to me than the gunning down of a family for no apparent motive - it seems the plethora of violent detective stories and TV has dulled me to that. The inclusion of simple descriptions of rural Kansas and the very real friends and neighbours the Clutters left behind don't pull the heartstrings as much as modern dramatic storytelling might - they are from a bygone era - one that at times seems too innocent and almost oppressive. The book marks the beginning of a change in America. The Clutter's neighbours started locking their doors and the many people who were enthralled by Capote's book, marked the beginning of public fascination with true crime, one that ended in CNN criminal psychologists, teenagers who can quote random facts about common serial killer traits and eventually an ingrained fear of wondering criminals who kill in cold blood. Capote's 'novel' is therefore a book I strongly recommend. There is an innocence and almost pioneering nature to it, one that only stands out when you notice the comparative lack of (modern) sensationalism, lurid photos and psych reports. When the author doesn't have a degree in criminality, the testimonies included seem more genuine and almost as if he is stumbling about trying to make sense of the situation in the same way as everybody else; he is uniquely sharing rather than lecturing on an academic case. And so he provides a true crime book without the usual bitter voyeuristic aftertaste.

1 comment:

  1. It is a compelling book and it always astonishes it comes from the same mind as Breakfast at Tiffany's!