Many books are called ‘compelling’ and this one deserves to be. In Cold Blood is an extraordinarily well-structured and carefully paced work of what has been called ‘novelistic journalism’. Truman Capote has his readers absolutely in his control from start to finish.
The book opens by introducing us to the Clutter family, four members of which were murdered in their home in Kansas in 1952. Allowing the reader to grow to like these immensely likeable people is necessary to the story’s emotional force. It is necessary in order to communicate the magnitude of the crimes and the horror of them.
This is not a detective story. The reader learns very early in the narrative who committed the crimes. Rather, the scenes unfold in chronological order from multiple vantage points, the result of six years of dedicated research on the part of the author. Knowing the outcome of the police investigation in advance somehow does not detract from the suspense of following it at a distance. The ability to describe the crime and its consequences in such detail give it a weighty reality that is often sickening.
Capote goes to great lengths to describe the backgrounds of those who committed these crimes, an approach which allows each of us to draw our conclusions about the causes of crime in any society. What the book does very successfully is to demonstrate the futility of capital punishment for the deterrence of at least some serious crimes. This is because the crimes were committed by persons in the knowledge that if they were to be caught, they would likely hang. Without making any pronouncement on the efficacy of the criminal justice system of the time, Capote leaves room to cast it into doubt. What punishment can be appropriate for anyone involved in the murder of an innocent family, when nothing can give them any comfort or redress? What is the alternative?
That Capote took six years to write the book is proof of his conviction that the story was worth exploring, and worth writing well. He was right.