Book Review: In Cold Blood

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I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I recently finished a course in data visualization, where we learned to use tools like Gephi, OpenRefine, and Jigsaw to analyze different types of datasets. As part of the course, we were required to analyze a dataset and present our findings to the class. We were free to choose a dataset that interested us, and I chose to analyze data about serial killers.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m very interested in serial killers. I thought it was a little unusual, but I soon realized that many of my acquaintances found similar topics–crime, murder, serial killers–fascinating. We all consume media about these gruesome topics, whether fictional or true, in many forms, from podcasts like Serial to movies like American Psycho to books like In Cold Blood.

What is it about murder, about crime, that fascinates us? I think it’s our human capability of empathy. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? humans are differentiated from all other creatures, androids and animals alike, by their ability to empathize with other creatures. In other words, what makes humans special is our ability to relate to any other creature, to see a little bit of ourselves in others. That’s what makes murder so fascinating a crime, because the average person can’t imagine doing it–being filled with the desire to so brutally hurt another human being. And the thought that at the core, that a murderer is human, and, in the end, not so different from you or me, is both fascinating and terrifying.

What interests me more than the gory details of murders (which, in fact, actually make me feel a little nauseous) is attempting to comprehend the psyche of such criminals. And that’s what made me enjoy In Cold Blood so much.

In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote details the murders of the Clutter family, as committed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. But what’s more interesting than the actual details of the murders is the characterization of the two murderers and their families, the townspeople and acquaintances of the Clutters, and the numerous other characters. At first, it can be difficult to keep track of all the different characters, but Capote is careful not to overburden the reader with too many new people at once, and each character is distinct enough to remember after a couple of appearances.

What is especially interesting about this book is that it chronicles a real crime. Whether it is accurate in its portrayal of the characters, the places, and the events is up for debate, and, in fact, Capote is believed to have greatly dramatized many scenes of the novel, and cast the murderers, especially Smith, in a more favourable light. However, I think that as a modern reader, we should know to take “true stories” with a grain of salt. Some things must be done for the sake of a good story, and Capote was no doubt a great storyteller.

YES OR NO?: YES. As someone interested in crime, this novel was perfect for me, but I would also recommend it for Capote’s prose, flowing brilliantly in places where a more amateur writer would have constructed awkward sentences. It also exposed me to lifestyles previously foreign to me, like that of a Kansas farmer in the 1950s, and forced me to mull over thought-provoking issues such as the death penalty.

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