Forgotten Classics: pretending to have read Capote

By Esther Chavannes

You know those books you should read, but, in all honesty, you probably haven’t and won’t and out of nowhere they pop up in a discussion and there you are, just trying to keep your cool. All you can think of is how to conceal that gap in your cultural capital, so you pretend to have read the book and say: “Honestly, I thought the book was better than the movie”. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is one of those books, and here is why you should stop pretending to have read it and actually read it.

In this first true ‘non-fiction novel’, Capote and his friend Harper Lee set out to research a family’s murder and the personalities and stories of those involved in it throughout several years following the case. The case on which the novel is based is the simultaneously vicious and meaningless murder of the much-loved Clutter family, in the complete anti-metropolis that is Holcomb, Kansas in 1959.

The killers are the ex-inmates Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the first a schmuck and the latter an aspirin-addict, who were after the family‘s fortune. These two lost souls are portrayed in stark contrast to the morally prominent Clutter family, and the town remains in a state of mistrusting shock for a long time after.

It is difficult to think of a murder case involving relatively unknown people that was met with such widespread interest and has proven to be as intriguing to so many. Several things made this story so compelling then and today. For one, there is the fact that a well-known New Yorker like Capote would make the trip to Kansas and investigate the goings-on in such a small town. Apart from this, there was the apparent fact that “of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered,” which at the time led to local outrage. This fuelled the police investigation as well as the news reports. Capote made use of this to maintain interest for his extensive research – given that by the time he published the book, everyone already knew how the story of the Clutters and their killers ended. Therefore, in the absence of mystery and the unpredictable, Capote inserts at times rather graphic depictions of violence to retain the audience’s attention, soon dubbed ‘pornoviolence’ by a contemporary – and self-admittedly jealous – critic.

Whether it’s in spite of or because of Capote’s lengthy build-up and carefully chosen violence, this is a book you’ll want to read front to back, even though the ending is technically not a surprise. You’ll find yourself slightly confused at the amount of times characters like Perry give you a sense of sympathy you didn’t think you’d feel for a murderer. All in all, I can gladly cross this great book off my ever-expanding reading list, and I would highly recommend the same to the on average 60% of you who pretended to have already read it.

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