Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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photo: penguin.com.au

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.

On the outskirts of Kansas is an area called Holcomb, a sleepy town “other Kansans call ‘out there’”, where an unlocked front door is customary and residents consider each other friends rather than neighbors. In mid-November of 1959, members of the particularly well-liked Clutter family; husband and wife Herbert and Bonnie, and teenaged siblings Nancy and Kenyon, have not shown up to church. A highly abnormal occurrence for the devout Methodist family. When two friends of young Nancy visit the River Valley Farm to find out what has happened they find the family car is still parked in the garage. The house is too quiet, on the kitchen floor is Nancy’s overturned purse. At the top of the stairs is the door to Nancy’s room, when her friends open it they find her in bed with the back of her skull ripped through by a bullet. Walking through subsequent rooms, the police quickly discover that the entire Clutter family has been massacred; each killed by a shotgun held inches from their faces.

In Cold Blood was first published in 1966, seven years after the murder of the Clutter family, and although there have been some before it, it is considered the first non-fiction novel. Non-fiction novels depict real people and events while utilizing artistic license to weave facts with fiction. Capote’s use of fictitious conversations and storytelling techniques typically seen in fiction turn this novel into a unique reading experience with palpable, sympathetic characters (good and bad), tension, and exquisite prose from an unbiased narrator. A pillar of the true crime genre, until this day In Cold Blood has only been outsold by one novel, Helter Skelter Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book about the Manson murders.

Capote capitalizes on tension by splitting the novel into four parts: The Last to See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and The Corner. Although Holcomb residents are sure the crime has been committed by one of their own, the reader knows the true criminals to be Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two recently released convicts with numerous prior arrests. The pair have similarly disturbing childhoods and mentality of being jilted by the world, but vastly differing personalities that probably would not have coincided had it not been for the prison walls they were both behind. Hickock is a tall, harsh, smooth talking leader with a skewed face, while half-Indian Smith is stocky, emotional, creative, and superstitious. Capote’s ability to remain mostly unbiased (during interviews with Smith and Hickock it is clear he sees Smith as the more sensitive of the two and portrays him as such) is what drives the novel’s authoritative voice. His impartial writing style ensures that all sides of the story are told, which is why he succeeds in turning seemingly cold blooded murderers into sympathetic characters.

Going into the story readers know the Clutter family has been killed in their rural home. We already know the murderers are caught, tried, and hanged as a result. What the reader learns from this book is why, the fine details behind murder, and through six years of writing and 8000 pages of research, Capote does a wonderful job of delivering. As a result of dubious research, interviews with people who knew both Clutter family and their murderers, Capote writes with certainty and authority, delivering a story that reads like a beautifully written police report. Although readers go in with relative knowledge of the murders, Capote instills even more mystery with details peppered throughout the story, for example, the circumstances that brought the deadly pair to the Clutter household.

As a boy he’d [Hickock] so envied the son of a neighbor who had gone to the Gulf Coast on holiday and returned with a box of shells-so hated him- that he’d stolen the shells and one by one crushed them with a hammer. Envy was constantly with him; the Enemy was anyone who was someone he wanted to be or who had anything he wanted to have.

There are multiple narratives throughout the book connecting accounts of neighboring families and workers that cared for the Clutter farm up until the day of the murders, dovetailed with Smith and Hickock’s travels through Mexico after the murders. While inhabitants of Holcomb and detectives believe the crimes to be perpetrated by calculated crooks, the reader knows Hickock and Smith to be messy and stuck in a cycle of poor choices – a far cry from whom most are expecting. Capote pays special attention to Hickock and Smith’s complex love-hate relationship during and after the murders, and the dependency and strain that weighs heavily on them when funds dwindle and a paper trail of bad checks piles up behind them.

Towards the end of the book a character poses the question; “How can a person as sane as this man seems to be commit an act as crazy as the one he was convicted of?” Studying the psychology and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith as well as others convicted of crimes as heinous as the one they committed, Capote references Dr Joseph Satten’s Murder Without Apparent Motive – A Study in Personality Disorganization and draws the attention of the novel to the trial itself. Up until this point it is easy to get lost in Capote’s writing style and forget the events in the book are real, the trial brings everything back to reality. This moment is where the story soars, leaving the reader feeling emotional and conflicted about the slaying of the Clutter family and all that comes undone following it; Holcomb, the minds of those residing there, and the lives of Hickock and Smith.

Have you read In Cold Blood? What did you think of it? Is it on your TBR list? Do you enjoy reading about sympathetic bad characters? Let me know in the comments!

*Book two out of 10 Books of Summer

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyouLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

If you have heard anything about Celeste Ng’s (that’s pronounces “ing” her twitter and website will have you know!) debut novel Everything I Never Told You this first line is probably it. It’s plastered all over synopsis’ and reviews because Creative Writing 101 tells us the first line of a story is what will attract (or distract) a reader. Seeing Celeste Ng obviously had a good understanding of this I knew I was in for a good time. I picked up a copy from my mum’s bookshelf and quickly read a few paragraphs before pocketing it. My mum now supervises my visits to her study, with good reason.

Everything I Never Told You is about the Lees, a mixed Chinese and Caucasian family living in Ohio in the 1970s. When sixteen year old Lydia Lee disappears and is found drowned a day later, her parents Marilyn and James, older brother Nath, and younger sister Hannah go through the motions as an investigation starts and the events leading up to Lydia’s death are picked through with a fine tooth comb, forcing them to question how well they really knew Lydia. It’s not long before we find that Lydia was an integral part of the family which, without her, starts to fall apart at the seams like a cheap dress coat. The plot goes back and forth in time, through Marilyn and James’ early relationship and marriage, Lydia’s dealings with her school mates and few friends, all revealing secrets long the way. Perspective is switched from one family member to another which adds a closeness to each of their stories, including Lydia. At first this reads like a mystery or thriller but as the story unravels a majority of the focus falls firmly on each family member’s memory of Lydia and what they believe were the events leading to her death, rather than how she died or who is responsible.

As the title suggests, this novel focuses on things left unsaid and the repercussions that linger because of it, which was the main reason I was pulled through the book. I was curious who would find out about someone else’s dirty business, curious who would be left in the dark, curious about what was being left unsaid to us readers. Celeste Ng puts together poetic sentences and knows how to paint a scene with her words, making this book an easy and enjoyable read for me for the most part. But, there is a lot of hand holding through plot assumed too difficult for readers to figure out for themselves, which is unnecessary since those moments were very predictable. There were times I knew I was supposed to think Oh, no way! but would just think Knew it. and want to move on to the next juicy thing happening. This book is very “juicy”. Lots of drama and chaos on the surface, but little meat or real substance when in the thick of it. 

Everything I Never Told You pushed me to ask myself some questions: 1. Can a character be too unlikeable? Yes. 2. When is a character too unlikeable? When I stop caring what happens to him/her. I could not stand Marilyn and James, prime examples of parents who project their fears and shortcomings onto their children (if you’ve seen Trophy Kids on Netflix, ‘nough said). While Lydia is alive they neglect their two other children, Hannah and Nath. Marilyn seems to forget Hannah even exists as she sets the dinner table for four instead of five, and can usually be found helping Lydia with homework or in a daze thinking about her lost dreams of becoming a ‘woman doctor’. A dream long gone after marriage and three kids. When Lydia dies her parents go from neglectful, selfish, and oblivious to emotionally and physically abusing to their two remaining children.

When is a character too unlikeable? When they have literally no redeeming features. The kids are pretty shitty people too, but through no fault of their own.

Relationships and family dynamics are exaggerated to the point that whenever Marilyn talks to Lydia it is always about getting good grades and becoming a doctor. James only sits Lydia down to remind her how great it is to have friends, even boyfriends, and be popular. I know what Celeste Ng is trying to drive home, but it is overstated and at every opportunity. With Marilyn being Caucasian and James being Chinese American in 1970s Ohio race is discussed endlessly throughout the book. A nice perspective to write on, but again was exaggerated at every opportunity. James is self conscious about being one of few Asian people in Ohio. His teaching assistant (also Chinese, go figure) is surprised to see a family photo with him and his gasp white wife (and actually says this). Lydia is James’ favorite child because she looks the whitest.

And there is no way to make that sentence sound any less ridiculous.

James would love to take a wet wash rag to his skin and magically wash away his Asianess and cannot stand the sight of Nath because he’s a spitting image of him in complexion, appearance, and timid personality. He often yells at or hits Nath whenever a little too much of his younger self shows through Nath’s actions or speech.

His not getting a promotion is because he is not white. He has no friends because he is not white. He feels like an outcast in his own family because he is not white.

This is the point their relationships and dialogue became uninteresting and unbelievable and I stopped wondering what happened to Lydia since she was better off dead anyway.

I have never read a story where I ended feeling so conflicted about the framework and the author’s writing. Although I closed the book feeling slightly pleased by the ending I knew I was supposed to be weighed down by the revelations that came to light, but they were lost on me since I had stopped caring. I kept on reading for Celeste Ng’s fluid style and beautiful sentences. And the juicy bits.

What books have you read that left you feeling conflicted? Do you enjoy reading about unlikable characters? When do you think an author can make their character too obnoxious?