Rating: 4 stars
As I started this book, it felt like I knew the story already, and yet I didn’t. I had watched the film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, based on his experience writing the book, which has left me with a strange half knowledge.
It took a while for Capote’s writing style to gel for me. I’d come from volume 7 of The Sixth Gun (review to come), and prior to that had read Peter Carey’s memoir Wrong About Japan, both of which were punchy and fast flowing in their own ways. In Cold Blood starts off more melodramatic in tone. It made me think of those true crime TV programmes where re-enactments take place and a man with a sonorous voice intones the story over the top of the action. A bit like Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories, for readers in the UK.
As I settled into Capote’s style, though, I found myself gripped by the scenes he was setting. He weaves the different strands of the key players’ stories together gradually, cutting from one person to the next, showing the build up to the crime for both victims and perpetrators, and then the aftermath of the crime through to the trial. At times I wondered how he knew what the victims had thought and felt as people. They weren’t there for him to interview and nobody else could have known their innermost thoughts. It felt as though he were inventing them as characters to give his story more dramatic tension. It certainly made for a more gripping tale, but at the back of my mind was a discomfort. It felt slightly wrong for a true story to be dressed up like a novel. It felt akin to the salacious stories published in tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines.
I found Capote’s understanding of human nature very persuasive. His description of Bonnie Clutter’s anxiety and depression was particularly affecting. There’s a passage early in the book that describes a young neighbour spending time alone with Bonnie, and Bonnie projecting her anxieties onto the girl’s future before checking herself and trying to reassure the girl that her life would be different. That felt familiar! The thing I found unsettling, though, was the description of Bonnie as someone who feels she doesn’t have her own place in the world. Her parents and brothers tried to shelter her from the bad in the world. She started training to be a nurse, but left to get married. She became a mother and suffered postnatal depression. She found a job that she enjoyed but felt guilty about enjoying it. She felt as though she had failed in everything, overshadowed by her outgoing husband, not needed by her organised children, unable to be the person she knew herself to be. I recognised to an extent that feeling of not being who I know myself to be, because of family dynamics and expectations imposing a specific role on me.
Capote’s portrayal of Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith, the two criminals who commit murder in cold blood, had impact. Here were two young men, one from a loving family, the other from a broken home and nomadic childhood, who experienced an internal separation from emotion and an external one from society. They knew that what they were doing was wrong, they could dispassionately analyse it as such, but they didn’t care. Capote tried to understand them and, in so doing, humanised them. He showed that their lives had potential that was wasted, through a combination of social background, lack of opportunity and mental status. He didn’t seek to excuse their behaviour, or suggest that justice hadn’t been done. What he did was peel back the comforting layer of labelling them monsters and show that life and death is not as straightforward as law courts suggest it is. Capote referred to the then new science of criminal psychology, and the unwillingness of the court to allow for any other examination of mental state than whether the perpetrators knew right from wrong in the moment of their crime.
I enjoyed Capote’s writing, and the police procedural aspects of the story. I found it a thoughtful book, but the literary style occasionally felt uncomfortable, as though this true story of a violent crime was being used as fodder for entertainment.