≡ Menu

Review: In Cold Blood

Hey everyone! I’ve been unofficially unplugged from blogging for the last week or so, but I’m finally back. Today is going to be a day mostly devoted to getting caught up — I’ve got a ton of posts in Google Reader to catch up on, comments to respond to, end of the year posts to finish up, and some miscellaneous paperwork and e-mails to get back to. But for the moment, enjoy a review of Truman Capote’s famous nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood (cheery, I know).

in cold bloodTitle: In Cold Blood
Truman Capote
Literary Journalism (Nonfiction Novel?)
Acquired: Purchased
Rating: ★★★★½

Two Sentence Summary: On November 15, 1959 four members of a prominent family were brutally murdered for no apparent reason. This book reconstructs the crime and follows the investigation of this senseless crime.

One Sentence Review: Capote’s book is chilling and creepy, but reconstructs this crime so fully it’s earned it’s status as one of the central tomes of literary journalism.

Long Summary: In Holecomb, Kansas, the Clutter family was well-respected and well-known. Sixteen-year-old daughter Nancy baked cherry pies and dated the local basketball star. Fifteen-year-old son Kenyon was quiet, but loved technology and building things. Father Herb employed many local workers on the family’s successful far. And mother Bonnie, although often confined to bed with an unspecified nervous condition, served as a loyal homemaker. The family also had two older sisters, but both were already married and moved away. But on a night in November, the entire family was brutally gunned down in their home leaving far more questions than answers.

Truman Capote’s book follows the entire investigation process, piecing together the day of the crime and the days after from the perspective of the investigators and the murderers. The killers, felons Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, flee Holecomb and make an ill-conceived escape to Mexico with no money and no options before they’re arrested back in the United States. Capote is there for the entire process — capture, trial, and eventual execution — and he details those events in with a chilling clarity and eye for detail.

There might be some spoilers in this review, but since this book is quite old and very well known, I don’t think it’s a problem. But just be warned.

Long Review: I was struck by how well Capote sets the stage and builds tension in the book. You start the book knowing the murder is going to happen, knowing the killers will be caught, and knowing that they’ll eventually be executed, but the book still manages to be tense and unsettling as you read. I didn’t expect that at all, which made this book one I had to read in daylight and only in small doses.

One way Capote builds tension is by not letting the details of the murder out right away. He starts with the day of the murder, going through what each member of the Clutter family was doing and who they were seeing. There’s a sense of doom that hangs over all of it, knowing the murder is coming. I expected Capote to go chronologically, giving the details of the murder right away. But he doesn’t he — he saves all of that for Smith’s confession, which doesn’t happen until the third section of the story. So you get this awful tension through the whole thinking knowing all the details are coming eventually. It’s masterful, and a much smarter way of telling the story that I suspect I would have used.

Critiques and Controversies

One critique of the book is that Capote seems to get too close to the killers and actually starts to portray them too sympathetically. Some people even speculate Capote and Smith had a sexual relationship during the course of researching the book. I have to disagree with that critique. I never felt like the book let the killers off the hook in any way. Maybe I’m just cold-hearted, but even knowing both of the killers unfortunate childhoods didn’t make my sympathize with them at all. The murder is just too unnecessary and too brutal for that.

There’s also some critiques about how “true” the book is. Capote never used a tape recorder during interviews, relying on his memory to get quotes right. And there are some accusations that he made up scenes in the book, making it more accurate to call this piece a “nonfiction novel” than straight nonfiction. I really don’t know how much of that is true, but it’s an interesting backstory of the book and one to keep in mind. That said, the core of the story — a well-off and well-respected family was gunned down in their homes by two former felons to who refused to show remorse — is true, and terrible enough.


I’m not sure whether I recommend the book or not. If you like true crime, or even if you’re normally a mystery or thriller reader, I think you’d love this book. It would be a nice transition piece from crime novels into nonfiction if that’s something a reader is interested in. But of those books don’t interest you, then I don’t think you’d like this one at all. So recommended, but with stipulations 🙂

Other Reviews: Lesley’s Book Nook; Book Addiction; Bending Bookshelf;

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Care December 29, 2009, 11:29 am

    I was just in Holcomb Kansas two weeks ago. I always think of this book when I’m there.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:17 pm

      Care: Interesting, why were you in Holcomb? I suspect anyone who has read the book, or even heard the story, can’t help think about it when they are there.

  • Lu December 29, 2009, 12:14 pm

    I’m not much of a true crime or mystery reader, but I loved this one. Well, loved in the sense that I thought it was a masterpiece and it gave me more nightmares than any other book I’ve ever read. I would say that while it doesn’t sympathize with the murderers, it definitely doesn’t demonize them. And that is almost as terrifying because they seem like regular people. Really one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:18 pm

      Lu: I loved it in sort of the same way. It’s such a creepy, creepy book. I think what scared me most about the murders was how totally random they seemed. It’s that sense of having done nothing wrong but being terrorized anyway that made it chilling to read.

  • Steph December 29, 2009, 12:57 pm

    This is one that’s been on my TBR pile for at least a year now – I pitched it as a selection to my real life book club, but we wound up going with Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road instead. I’ve only heard good things about this one, and while I’ve never really read any true crime before, I do love mysteries and thrillers so I know I need to read this, seeing as it’s the grandfather of the genre!

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:20 pm

      Steph: I read this sort of for book club too — we’re doing Capote in Kansas, a fiction piece by Kim Powers, but I wanted to read this one first. I think this is a good true crime book that rests nicely between genres, it has a lot of ways to appeal to people other than the scare factor.

  • diane December 29, 2009, 1:24 pm

    Pretty Graphic but still an amazing book.

  • Teresa December 29, 2009, 4:17 pm

    I did a project on Truman Capote for a creative nonfiction/literary journalsim class several years ago and used this book as the basis for the project. (We had to write about the author in the style of the author.) There’s a fascinating New Yorker article about his writing process that I used, but I don’t know if it’s available online. (The class was long enough ago that I had to go to the library and use the microfiche machines to find it!) I tend to agree with you that there probably wasn’t a sexual relationship, although an attraction is certainly possble–and he does not let the killers off the hook in any way, unless some would claim that he does so by making Smith a bit human. He still depicts the murders themselves as inhuman acts.

    Have you watched Capote or Infamous? Both are very good movies that touch on the writing of this book.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:22 pm

      Teresa: I’m going to look for that New Yorker article, it sounds good. Although it’s impossible to condone the act, there’s just enough there to make the killers seem like real people. That’s something that a lot of true crime misses, I think, and what makes this one so good.

      I think we’re going to watch Capote along with our book club discussion on Capote in Kansas, which I’m looking forward to.

  • Laura's Reviews December 29, 2009, 4:38 pm

    I read this book a few years ago and thought it was amazing. It was pretty graphic and disturbing, but it was wonderfully written. It’s chilling knowing such evil exists in our world.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:23 pm

      Laura’s Review: Absolutely chilling. The writing the book was awesome — I feel like it takes a really talented writer to make something this disturbing and make it readable without losing how awful it was.

  • Kailana December 29, 2009, 5:03 pm

    I have never read a thing by him. I really should…

  • Aarti December 29, 2009, 5:09 pm

    I watched this movie a year or two ago and after that, got the book. I think it’s still on my shelf, somewhere… it sounds really well-written.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:24 pm

      Aarti: It is. Don’t read it at night, that’s creepy!

  • debnance at readerbuzz December 29, 2009, 8:30 pm

    I still shake a little when I remember reading this book, way, way back when I was a teen. Scary.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:25 pm

      debnance: I started reading the book as my book before bed and I had to stop because it scared me too much to go to sleep after I finished a chapter. I ended up finishing it up in the middle of a sunny afternoon.

  • Lisa December 29, 2009, 9:41 pm

    This book is on my list of books to read in the coming year. It sounds strange to say that I can’t wait to read a book about a family being murdered, but I can’t wait.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:25 pm

      Lisa: Nope, I get it. I wanted to read this book for a long, long time, mostly because of it’s reputation as being a first book of it’s type. It’s definitely earned the reputation as a masterpiece in the genre.

  • Andi December 30, 2009, 12:32 pm

    This is probably one of my favorite books for the deftness of Capote’s storytelling. As you wrote, he’s masterful at building tension, and I was awestruck at how beautifully written such a horrible book could be! Weird dichotomy there. Something akin to reading Lolita for me. It’s that same sense of “this is great writing!” and “Oh God, I need to look away!”

    Incidentally, I read this one largely in my pool a couple of summers ago. It was much more conducive to any reading of it at night or in the gloom.

    • Kim December 30, 2009, 6:26 pm

      Andi: I really couldn’t believe how tense the book was, given that you knew from the beginning the basics of the plot and how things were going to end up. That still amazes me. I bet it would be just as tense on a second read.

  • Kathy December 30, 2009, 7:58 pm

    I read this years ago and really liked it, for some odd reason, because it totally creeped me out. Great review.

    • Kim January 1, 2010, 7:51 pm

      Kathy: Yeah, there’s something odd about liking a book so creepy and unsettling and sad as this one. But I had to admire the writing and storytelling.

  • Julie December 30, 2009, 10:11 pm

    I stumbled upon your blog through a guest blog you did about Hypocrite in the Pouffy White Dress. I really enjoyed reading your guest post. I also see you are a fellow Badger! I did my undergrad at UW in the school of education. I miss it there so much! I’m enjoying reading your blog and looking forward to reading more.

    • Kim January 1, 2010, 7:53 pm

      Julie: Thanks! I’m doing my masters in journalism at UW right now and I love it. Yay Badgers!

  • Julie December 30, 2009, 10:11 pm

    opps, entered the wrong website on my last comment.

  • Julie December 30, 2009, 10:13 pm

    still not working. my blog, which is brand new, is http://www.brichtabooks.blogspot.com

  • Tami and Dave December 31, 2009, 4:30 pm

    The trouble with true crime is that we, as readers, often forget that it’s not fiction. It’s hard to forget that this one is real! We live near Holcomb and Hubby lived there as a child, so I suppose that makes this book more graphic to us, but I tend to avoid true crime for that reason. I hate to “enjoy” a story that exploits people’s pain and tragedy. Tough genre! – but this is a well-written example. Thanks for the review.

    • Kim January 1, 2010, 7:56 pm

      Tami and Dave: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I’m not usually a true crime person myself, but I think this book is too well-done to have not read. I can imagine it would be a lot more unsettling living close to Holcomb. It’s not enjoyable, exactly, but a book to admire.

  • Savvy Working Gal January 2, 2010, 4:39 pm

    Thanks for the review. This book has been on my TBR list for quite awhile. Its one of those books I’d like to read it, but never feel up to reading about sheer evil. A couple of months ago, a fellow blogger left a comment on one of my blog posts stating this book helped her understand the damage unrestrained masculinity can bring about. I don’t know maybe someday.

    • Kim January 4, 2010, 5:44 pm

      Savvy Working Gal: The murders in this book are evil, that’s for sure. There is some attempt to explain how they got the way they are, but I’m not convinced on that point. I think the brutality of the crime is another reason the book can be hard to read. But I’m glad I did — I hope you get the chance if you decide it’s a book you’d want to read.

  • charley January 2, 2010, 5:50 pm

    I thought In Cold Blood was such a finely crafted story. It’s been about a year since I read it, so my memory is a little hazy, but I recall liking the way Capote alternated between the response of the townspeople and the lives of the killers. He painted such a vivid picture of all aspects of this crime, and I think he revealed much about himself in the process.

    • Kim January 4, 2010, 5:45 pm

      charley: I liked the alternating story too. It was interesting to see what leads the detectives were working on versus what the killers were actually doing. I’m not sure if seeing the process made me more or less confident in the whole investigative process.

Next post:

Previous post: