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Top mysteries challenge review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Sub-title: A true account of a multiple murder and its consequences.
Year of publication: 1965 (as 4 long newspaper articles; in 1966 in book form)
Genre: True crime
Setting & time: Kansas, USA (mostly Holcomb and Garden City), other places around the USA; Mexico; 1959-1960.

Story and review:
In November 1959, a respectable and prosperous Kansas farmer, his wife and two of their children were murdered by two ex-convicts. The men had come there to rob them of what they expected would be a fortune. They only scored a small amount of money but left behind them a carnage that horrified the peaceful small town of Holcomb. Truman Capote read a short piece of news about the murders and went there to investigate. What emerged was this book which is part fact and part fiction. The Wikipedia entry on the book calls it a non-fiction novel, i.e. a basically true story written using the techniques of fiction.

I must admit that I am squeamish when it comes to reading about real crimes, especially violent ones. Even so, I found this story keeping me spellbound, and I think this is mostly because Capote makes it seem like fiction, even while drawing up excellent images of the participants so realistic that one can almost see them, and describing in cinematic detail events one knows really took place. The novelization technique he adopted, including the use of an omniscient narrator who tells the story in an impersonal manner instead of telling the story as himself, is a very good way to make the story seem like a novel and thus remove any misgivings the reader might feel upon reading, for example, the descriptions of the murders.

As in most cases of true crime writing, there is always some speculation going on, and Capote has been accused not only of speculation, but of downright fiddling with the truth in unverifiable parts of the story. Additionally, long passages of the story are based solely on what the two men told Capote about themselves, and are probably not totally reliable. That doesn’t detract from the quality of the storytelling, which is excellent and in the best tradition not only of the police procedural, but also of the psychological thriller. With the police procedural it has in common the detailed descriptions of the police’s gathering of evidence, and with the psychological thriller the building up of tension that one can’t help but feel, even though one knows perfectly well what’s going to happen. The slow unfolding of events, jumping first between the victims and killers, and then between the police and the killers, and between the past and the (narrative) present, along with the piecemeal passing out of information, so that one doesn’t have the whole picture until the last sentence, is brilliant.

Rating: An excellent example of true crime writing that many writers of true crime stories could learn something from. 4+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 102

Awards and nominations: None that I know of.


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