On November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, the four members of the Clutter family were dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning and tied up. All four were shot in the head with a shotgun at close range. None survived. The killers left few clues, and there was no apparent motive for the slayings.
On assignment from the New Yorker, author Truman Capote, along with his assistant Nell Harper Lee, traveled to Holcomb in late 1959 to investigate the killings for an article. The article was completed, but still Capote remained in Holcomb. He conducted interviews with every person in town; he poured over police records and statements. Once the killers, drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were caught and sentenced, he even interviewed them on Death Row. The Clutter killings became an obsession for him; and that obsession turned into a book that would become a literary milestone, that would singlehandedly introduce a new genre to the literary world: the nonfiction novel. He called his piece of creative nonfiction IN COLD BLOOD, and it so consumed him that it would be the last thing he'd ever write.
I didn't expect this book to move me so deeply. In most true crime books that are written today (at least in my experience), the evidence is presented straightforwardly, unemotionally; the facts are dry and textbook-like. Such is not the case with IN COLD BLOOD. Capote's prose is mesmerizing. His descriptions of Holcomb and its inhabitants are vivid and lively. His research is impeccable, presented flawlessly, lushly, sweeping the reader away on waves of vibrant language.
And his imagery is heartbreaking: Nancy Clutter teaching a neighbor to make a cherry pie, Dick Hickock deliberately hitting a dog on the highway, the Clutters' old mare standing alone in an overgrown pasture. With startling empathy, Capote transports his readers to the Holcomb, Kansas, of late 1959: We feel the tension and sorrow clouding the town; we watch as the police nearly crumble under the weight of their investigation; we're with Dick and Perry as they flee across the United States to Mexico, leaving a trail of bounced checks in their wake, and we're with them in their cells on Death Row. We're right there the whole time, from the day before the Clutters are killed to the day after their murderers are executed. And Capote is unflinching; he keeps us there, even when the honesty of his prose makes us uncomfortable, even when we can't imagine reading on but somehow can't seem to stop.
And this is the genius of IN COLD BLOOD: It is a violent, unflinching account, sorrowful beyond belief (and made even more so because it's true); but, in the hands of a master like Capote, it's really hard to stop reading about this unfortunate family and their motiveless, pathetic murderers. This book made me sad, it made me shiver; but I'm glad I read it.