When I reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers last week, I suggested that Boo's nonfiction novel, despite its compelling subject matter, didn't quite work for me. It lacked the style of a novel and the real-life intimacy of nonfiction. So, it was quite a different experience reading a "master" (In Cold Blood is often credited as the first "nonfiction novel") at work.
And In Cold Blood is certainly masterful. Capote's account of the brutal Kansas murders of four members of the Clutter family by two men, Dick and Perry, is utterly can't-put-it-down suspenseful, despite knowing the family's and killers' ends from the beginning.
Capote is especially adept at creating mood. The ominous feeling of the first few chapters, as the reader follows the Clutter family, their neighbors, and the killers in the day leading up to the murder, is nearly palpable. Though the reader knows the family will die, it takes time before the reason for the murder comes to light, which adds even more mystery to the first part of the book. Surprisingly, given the obsession with lurid and gory details today, the specifics of the murders are told rather sparsely, something I appreciated. The book is all the more stronger for focusing more on the individuals themselves and less on those terrible few hours.
Once the crime is known, In Cold Blood focuses mostly on the killers themselves, Dick and Perry. They're both interesting characters, entirely unremorseful for their crimes. Though Perry comes off the more sympathetic of the two (perhaps even too sympathetic, as it becomes hard to see him as a murderer), he's also clearly the more disturbed, from his abusive childhood to his paranoid tendencies. By the end, there's no clear answer. On the one hand, I supported their death penalty conviction. These men knew what they were doing and chose to do it--and there's no evidence they could or would reform. But, at the same time, they were mentally damaged young men, and there's some sadness in that.
Capote retains a detached, neutral tone without, relying on other people (community members, police, Dick and Perry) to tell the story. Nonetheless, the rich details that make everything so real are clearly Capote's--a result of his writer's touch and his meticulous reporting.
In Cold Blood was fascinating and is one of the best nonfiction pieces I've read. Even though the book is now approaching its fiftieth anniversary, time hasn't worn down it at all.