Where's the book?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A masterpiece

I first read In Cold Blood (#19) a long time ago, perhaps in high school. Of course, I remembered the story well, having since seen the movie, the movies about Capote, etc. But in my hazy memory, the book was approximately 75% murder, 25% background and follow-up. Boy, was I wrong. Out of about 400 pages, there are perhaps 5 that describe the actual murder. And they don't come until about three-quarters of the way through the book. The rest is the lead-up to the murders (the first of four sections is called "The Last to See Them Alive"), the search for the killers, the arrest, the trial, and, fairly quickly, the five years until the murderers are executed.

There are no surprises, of course. We all know who did it, and we all know they hung for it. But the true surprise is how incredibly well-written and gripping the book is. How can there be a page-turner, when we already know
The killers: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith
the outcome? Capote manages to give us the details of this fairly mundane family -- the Clutters -- and these almost pathetic killers -- Dick and Perry -- and keep us glued to our seats in the process. All while he was pretty much inventing a new genre, the non-fiction novel.

The really interesting part of the book, to me, is how it's put together. The story is the story, and although Capote may have invented pieces here and there (and there's a heck of a lot of controversy about what was "true" and what wasn't), the tale is told as it happened. But the choices (what to convey in description and what in dialog, or monolog; whether or not to follow the action chronologically; what to put in and what to leave out) are fascinating. One example: The book begins on the day before the family is killed, and we follow them through every moment of their day, in tremendous detail. The story of their last hours is intercut with the story of Dick and Perry, and their plans for the murder, their purchases, even the food they eat. We follow both arcs right up until just before the moment they intersect -- as the killers are driving up the road to the lonely Clutter farmhouse. And then we skip ahead to the discovery of the bodies the next morning. Why? In a book that is almost steadily chronological, with background filled in throughout, why is such an important event -- THE important event -- off-screen?

Capote and Catpote
We don't find out exactly what happened that night for a long time. And when we do, it comes buried in a monolog of Perry's, after the two men are arrested in Las Vegas. Perry speaks for pages and pages, and tells us every detail of that infamous night. That is, until he gets to the actual murders, and then the omniscient narrator returns, and in one short paragraph, tells us how the Clutters died. And then we return to Perry's first-person narration.

Why? Why play with time and voice, which he does throughout the book? My personal theory: Capote identified with Perry, another broken child-man with a heartbreakingly awful childhood. And because Capote identified with him, and perhaps had even grown to care for him in the many years he worked on the book, he wanted to keep the story that would surely harden our hearts against Perry away from us. He didn't want to tell us the gruesome facts of the murder so early in the book. And he didn't want us to hear it from Perry himself. Better it come anonymously, where it might not cause us to condemn Perry so severely.

There are so many fascinating narrative choices. Capote famously had 8,000 pages of notes for the book, and how he whittled them into this compelling story might be an interesting tale in itself. But what we do have, in 350 un-put-down-able pages, makes for intense reading. In Cold Blood is the first of its kind. It's also the best.

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