“Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb.”
November 15, 1959 turned out to be a bizarre day in the lives of the good people of Holcomb - a small, closely knit, god-fearing town located in the west of Kansas State. Comprising principally of blue-collar, middle-class American citizens who lived by the religion, were proud of who they were, and knew most of their fellow-residents in person, the existence of the place was however largely unknown to most Americans. But on the said date a multiple homicide occurred in cold blood; and that did not just shatter everything the town stood for and believed in, but also put them on the national map, even world map, as the event spurned not just a lot of newspaper coverage, but also one of the most groundbreaking works in the world of literature.
Truman Capote had gained as much fame as a litterateur courtesy such books as Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as he had gained notoriety for his flamboyant lifestyle, his pompous manner, and for being openly homosexual - a taboo in those days. Hence, when he read about the aforementioned incident in New York Times and felt the urge to visit Holcomb to cover it, he took his long-time friend Harper Lee (who would later go on to write the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill A Mocking Bird) along with him as he felt the conservative locals would be shocked by the "fame" that would precede him, and hence, might reject him outright without so much as giving him a chance. The presence of the homely Harper Lee, whose quiet demeanor was in stark contrast to that of Capote’s, did immensely help him as he started going about interviewing people and taking down notes.
What started as an exercise in whim turned into a singular obsession for Capote, and over the next seven years he went on to write one amongst the seminal books in the genre of journalistic fiction. In Cold Blood is considered one of the greatest books of the 20th Century not just because of its tremendous artistic merit, but also because it introduced the world to non-fiction novels, or "fiction based on facts". Despite some claims, critics doubt whether this was indeed the first in this school of writing; but there’s no doubting the fact that it made non-fiction novels a part of popular, mainstream literature – such was its power and the influence.
Interestingly, even before one has read the first page, one would know how the book ends, i.e. the gist of what transpires, who committed the crimes, and whether the perpetrators get punished. So, this is one book about which one need not worry about spoiler alerts. The drill is straightforward, at least in hindsight and for those who aren’t aware of the nitty-gritty of what essentially occurred. Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farm-owner, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenaged children Nancy and Kenyon, were brutally slain by shotgun blasts by two delinquent drifters, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, ex-convicts of the Kansas State Penitentiary, who had barged into the Clutters’ home with the intent of robbery. The two drifters were eventually caught, sentenced to death, and executed by hanging.
Capote did an enormous amount of research before and while writing the book. In fact, the book became one big obsession with him, as is evident by the depth of the various characters he delved into, not least of all being Perry, one of the two drifters, who he was said to have identified with on a more personal level. Thus, we do not just hear what each of those even remotely involved – from the homicide detective Alvin Dewey Jr. to the station master, from the Clutters’ servant to Dick’s former cellmate, from Nancy’s fiancé to the local diners - had to say and what they felt and what they did and how they coped, we are given a peek into the minds and backgrounds of all and sundry, as if they all mattered, irrespective of how vital or how inconsequential they were, in order for the viewers to get full comprehension of the event. Every aspect, from the homicide and the ensuing investigation to the court proceedings and the denouement, has been captured with such telling details, that the book seems at times to be enacting the series of incidents in front of our very eyes, even though they occurred half a century ago.
A dense and verbose book, In Cold Blood is anything but your summer beach read. Told in third person and heavily interspersed with the innumerable interviews that Capote took during his research work, the book offers a deeply disturbing look into crime and punishment, violence and retribution. A recurring theme of the book happens to be the age-old debate of nature-versus-nurture, and the cyclic nature of violence in our society. The distinction between good and evil, hero and villain has been blurred to the point of being hardly distinguishable. What makes the book even more disturbing is the fact that we are led to empathize with Dick and Perry despite the outrageousness of their act, and the casual manner - the chilling efficiency with which they wiped out a family.
The two criminals with questionable mental dispositions have been brought forth with frightening effect, with all their hopes, aspirations, nuances, layers, secret desires, flaws, pathological tendencies, and criminal inclinations. So even when they are facing their comeuppance, we are actually hoping against hope that they somehow manage to escape their dues; this despite the fact that even the Clutters have been portrayed in the minutest details – so much so that when they are butchered for a measly sum, we are appalled and horror-struck. This by itself elucidates the power of Capote’s prose, and his genius in provoking sympathy and dismay in equal measures.
The novel invited a lot of controversy upon its release. While some were horrified by the macabre details and some found the topic sensationalist, others accused Truman of taking liberties with the facts and statements of the interviewees. But they turned out to be minor blemishes and mere footnotes, as the book went on to establish the kind of legacy reserved only for the greatest and most important of literary masterpieces. Its impact was, and still remains, immense among writers, students, and bibliophiles. Capote’s fascinating ability to hold his readers spellbound despite a subject matter as disconsolate as this, is something to behold and be in awe of.
Capote’s experiences of writing the novel, and his consequent obsession with the proceedings, have been captured splendidly in the compelling 2005 film Capote, starring the terrific Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the eccentric, egotistic, complex but ultimately magnificent writer. The film deserves a dekko for those who read the book or even remotely interested in it.
"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."