A rural Kansas family’s home is invaded. They are neatly tied up and then brutally executed with a shotgun. Police are stumped. There are few clues, and no apparent motive. Among the most baffling, and most difficult questions that everyone asks is, “What kind of person could do such a thing?”
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a study of that question, and of the effect such senseless violence has on the rest of us. How do normal, sensible, sensitive people cope when confronted with such incomprehensible behavior?
This is not a whodunnit; in the first pages we learn the identities of the killers and we learn that they will be executed before it’s all over. The narrative starts with the last day the Clutter family is alive, and we quickly learn to like these people. Capote interviewed friends and witnesses extensively and we can feel the genuine affection the people had for the doomed family. Next, we meet the killers, two men who, at first glance, seem like normal, even likable guys. Not the kind of men who would shoot a teenage girl in the face with a shotgun. But that’s what they did, later that night.
Through the course of the investigation and the eventual trial, we learn more about these men, and about the men charged with tracking them down and later trying them. We learn about the town as well, and about the more intangible harm done to an entire community.
In the end, there’s no definitive answer to the fundamental question, no answer to what kind of people do things like this, just a recognition that those people exist. In the end the killers seemed to value their own lives as lightly as those of their victims. When Dick and Perry are hanged, there is no sense of catharsis, no sense of justice served. They may be gone, but the people who were affected by them will never be the same. They will never be able to forget that “people like that” exist.
I picked up the book mainly on the strength of the author’s name; Truman Capote is one of those I feel I should be familiar with as an American writer. His writing is clean and inconspicuous; he never uses fancy prose that might upstage his subjects. His conversational tone fits well with the straightforward speech of the people he is portraying. Based on this offering I can certainly agree that Capote was a good writer, but I didn’t see anything here that bumped him up to great. Maybe I’ll try Breakfast at Tiffany’s next.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.