Wednesday, 28 March 2012

An Unfortunate Encounter : Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

I enjoyed reading  the Lewisham Library Crime Reading Group's  choice for March. It's a shame I missed the discussion because the book raised issues worth talking about. The meetings are lively, and this is a thought-povoking book about  the random killing of a family in a remote Kansas farmhouse.

Having recently read James M. Cain's 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice the group were familiar with depression-era drifters and the notion that chance encounters could lead to mayhem. You could argue that the murder committed by that story's anti-hero was as much a crime of passion as a act perpetrated  for material gain. In the case of In Cold Blood, however, the motive, one might say, was purer : in 1959 a pair of ex jail-birds follow  a tip-off  about a wealthy landowner who keeps a safe in his house. But the safe doesn't  exist. Much of the drifting after the crime is  motivated by the wish to evade capture. Capote's detailed journalistic style is ideally suited to telling the tale, switching at first between victims and criminals and later gruesomely fascinating in its descriptions of life on Death Row

I watched the 1967 film on DVD. It depicted  the different personalities of the two young men , Perry Smith and Dick Hickok. It was also clear to me that the real reason  the family had been killed was that the men were wound up by a desire to appear 'tough' to one another - particularly the younger  Perry, whom Dick impressed by the swagger and confidence that made him such a successful conman. It's amazing that in the days before cheque guarantee cards shopkeepers were  so trusting. Passing dud cheques was called 'paper-hanging' .

It's remarkable  that Truman Capote, writer of the very different  Breakfast at Tiffany's and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 1995 film , was capable of such a such feat of journalism. He read about the case in the newspapers in 1959 and then went to interview the men in jail, as well as reading witness statements and trial transcripts. The church-going backgound and daily routines of the respectable Clutter family contrasts with the lifestyle of the two men, and the recreated dialogue is utterly credible.  The writing style seems on the surface  curiously flat and factual -  more effective and engaging  than a more sensational approach. The meeting of the two men, their crime and the aftermath are made to seem as inevitable as the meeting of the Titanic and the iceberg.