Because science into life doesn't go

Saturday, May 20, 2006

In Cold Blood: An Appreciation

A few days ago I finished reading Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' and since then I have wanted to get down my thoughts about why this was such a captivating read.

First off, there is the assured style of the narrative, right from the first line:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there."

For me, that line exudes authority. You get an immediate sense that Capote is in control, that he knows what he's talking about, and that you can trust what follows. The authorial confidence allows Capote to leisurely spend the majority of those first three pages describing Holcomb, and only delivering the hook right at the end: that this unassuming town will be the scene of a night of brutal, seemingly senseless murders.

For an amateur writer, trying his hand primarily at short fiction, the detachment of the voice is interesting. This isn't the POV of any character. This is the POV of an omniscient narrator, or rather, a journalist; the style is very much of the type found in investigative journalism---and it works.

Secondly, the characterisation, is masterful. Consider the following passage where we first meet one of the two murderers:

Like Mr. Clutter, the young man, breakfasting in a cafe called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes---that was his notion of a proper "chow-down."

In just three lines we already have a vivid, bold outline of the man. A man who prefers root beer to coffee, indicating a man who has not yet matured into a real adult. The dependence on aspirin, indicating a life of real, or perhaps imagined, pains. And lastly a chain smoker---always a sign of nervousness, of lack of control. And that last detail! A "chow-down". What a wonderful phrase---this is certainly not a man with obligations to work, family, or country---a man who can't even regulate his eating habits.

Maybe Capote had it easy: these weren't mental fabrications. These were real people, and they acted as they were. How could they do anything but? Still, the particular details he uses to sketch a character, situation, or place are always illuminating, and never boring or incidental.

With regards to the dynamic power of the novel---the element of the tale that makes it a page-turner---Capote employs an unusual device at odds with the run-of-the-mill whodunnit. Capote names the killers within the first fifteen pages. The engine that drives the readers curiousity is not the mystery of the murderer's identities. There are no conventional clues for the keen reader to spot. The mystery derives from understanding the killer's motivations. We pinball between the family members on their last day, friends, the killers, and then the detectives brought in.

For me, the driving force is the relationship between the two killers, and the insight into the procedural process as the noose draws close. In choosing this structure, Capote greatly elevates this above a piece of cheap genre fiction. Through the killer's meandering adventures after the murders we see their humanity, see their frailties, and see the way they are in no sense 'evil' in a biblical or one-dimensional way. Through the detective's work we have a mirror onto society's feelings about such men, how inadequate the response is, and how society itself is as much to blame as the men. The tapestry of narrative POVs---including a pair of tom-cats in one scene!---allows us to see the whole story and draw our own conclusions about responsibilities and consequences.


Anonymous Nick said...

As you well know, I was captivated by this magnificient book. You write 'the style is is very much of the type found in investigative journalism---and it works'. With this book, Capote created this special genre of writing. When reading this book, I feel the reader is completely unaware of the meticulous research needed to form the characters. The truth is, Capote never recovered from the effects of writing this book. He found someone akin to his own pain in Perry and by partaking in Perry's journey - albeit only by listening to Perry's own account- he wasn't able return to his New York socialite life without being confronted by the realisation of 'the other side' of American life. The dark and desperate side. The side that makes you murder an innocent family for 40-50 dollars.
The book is truly a masterpiece. A masterpiece only someone as dedicated and talented as Capote could have achieved. That dedication ultimately cost him. In Cold Blood is interesting in so many ways, for one as the harrowing account that it is, but also because it shows that a really good writer can take any subject matter (a random article in the Sunday newspaper) and depict the world we know in a mesmerizing and frightening light. This was his achievement. He showed us what it means to be an outcast in America and what it can lead to.

3:32 AM

Anonymous Rahul Kanakia said...

In Cold Blood was probably one of the best things my high school forced me to read. Not only because it was a good book, but also because the whole concept was so strange. A nonfiction novel? Definitely not something I would have picked up on my own.

8:36 PM


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