In Cold Blood – hollow in the centre?

In cold blood is a crime story, but it is emphatically not a mystery. There is no puzzle to solve. There are, perhaps, tiny details about the sequence of events which can be drawn out before the author reveals them, little elements of motive that are guessable, the payoff to the reader seems to be increasingly graphic detail about the murders. That is, it’s in the horror genre, and in a splattery, not spooky, way.

In cold blood is one of the earliest examples of non-fiction novel, and for its time it was revolutionary in its technique. That being said the author’s powerful, new methods of expression – his directness, his interleavening of personal views, his use of narrative structure – have been made invisible by their subsequent use in sensationalist journalism. It is as hard for us, as modern readers, to see what is stunning in this book as it is for us, as modern readers, to feel genuine terror at Victorian ghost stories.

I did not find the book sufficently interesting to justify reading it, in comparison to any of the many others I might have read instead. In part, this is a deliberate blindness to quality. I deliberately do not see the excellence of the book.

In the same way that I can, if I wish, relax my preconceptions enough to enjoy a Victorian ghost story, so, too, could I, if I wished, relax my preconceptions of the true crime genre to enjoy In cold blood. I find, however, that I do not wish to. The author does not carry me to that point, as say the authors of The Mayne inheritance or The suspicions of Mr Whicher do.

The point of a review is to give an opinion: to point other readers to work, good or bad, to save them time or offer them experiences which they might otherwise miss. And so it’s not enough for me to say I found the book hollow. I have to try to explain why the author could not bring me to the point of indulging in the horror of this story.

I think my resistance comes from many factors, but the first is the way it lauds Perry Smith, the murderer. I am repeatedly asked, almost begged, by the author to see him as a sympathetic figure. He is a sensitive man. He is a victim. He lashes out at all the terrible things which have happened in his life with an hour of rage. Surely I can sympathise? Surely I can understand?

And here the book breaks for me, because, no. I don’t. In the case of fictional villains, perhaps, but here? No – I refuse to invest in Smith emotionally in the way Capote wants me to. That’s my fault. It’s as wrong for me to complain that the book doesn’t work as to complain that Final Destination’s not frightening because I refuse to identify with the characters.

This isn’t a black-letter, Puritanical streak in me, as his work leads me to believe Capote would suggest. I do accept that all kinds of terrible things happened to Perry Smith during his childhood. I do accept that there were many points at which the intervention of a conincidental friend could have shifted his path away from mass murder.

I just don’t accept that the sensitive, valuable man we are presented with in the middle of the book is a good portrait of Smith. That breaks the twist in the book. Capote offers me an experience. I refuse the preconditions. Does this make it a bad book?

As a second area of resistance, I think that Capote is being disengenuous about the relationship between the killers. If I’m being told to read this book because it will let me see their minds, then is it fair to not show me their minds? One is clearly a monster, a paedophile who runs over stray dogs for fun. The other is…well, he’s some weird thing that Capote seems to be setting up as other than a monster, or as an understandable monster like Dexter Morgan.

He doesn’t sell me, and that makes me notice that one of his villains is clearly bad and the other is clearly “good” for an odd value of “good” I feel no sympathy for. And that makes me wonder how accurate each portrayal is.

Strangely the novel this reminded me most strongly of was Lake Wobegon days by Garrison Kellior. It’s not a crime novel: it’s a fiction about small town life in Minnesota, or a memoir pretending to be a fiction, or something like that. In cold blood is like Lake Wobegon days, with a grisly murder and a lengthy apologia for one, but not both, of the murderers in the middle.

In cold blood is written well, and has some excellent turns of phrase, but I don’t feel I can recommend it to others. There is something in the middle of it, a point where the writer’s artifice fails and you see behind the curtain and you wonder why he’s doing what he’s doing.

I could forgive that in fiction, but here it puts the whole premise of the book in question. Is the author relating a genuine experience of a small town’s response to a tragedy, and giving me access to the minds of the killers? I don’t feel that he is.