Occasionally I read a book that I can’t put down. I postpone work, chores and obligations to keep reading. I even stay up late at night because I can’t put it down.
Yesterday I finished reading one of these books: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, first published in 1966, attended by tremendous publicity. I tried to read it back then, but couldn’t get beyond around 20 pages. It seemed to move too slowly, and the story of a bloody murder turned me off.
A few weeks ago I watched the excellent movie Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who recently committed suicide. The movie was about the writing of In Cold Blood, which provoked my curiosity. I thought I’d try to read it again.
Before I began reading, I though Capote himself would be a character in the book, roaming around, asking questions. But he wasn’t a character in the book at all.
This time the book swept me away. Capote evidently spoke with many people and gathered tons of facts. Somehow he wove them together into a smooth, logical, suspenseful narrative. He understood the telling detail, had an ear for dialogue, and a sense of what’s important. He must have been a genius to weave so much information together so adroitly, seamlessly, with no false notes or wasted words, always keeping the narrative moving along briskly.
I’ve read many true crime books, but this was the best by far, probably because Capote was an artist at heart, with deep understanding and curiosity about human nature. In addition, intelligence matters. Capote obviously was brilliant.
Ultimately, the book is about evil in the form of two young men from underprivileged backgrounds who somehow were unable to accept ordinary civilized values, perhaps because they had lost faith in the concept of goodness, and independently had reached the conclusion that God was some kind of delusion or scam.
They reminded me of a line from Macbeth, spoken by the Second Murderer: “I am one, my liege, whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed that I am reckless what I do.”
Perry Smith and Dick Hitchcock were incredibly reckless, although both had above average intelligence. It simply never occurred to them to get a job and settle down. Instead they wanted to beat the system. So they committed a series of petty crimes and finally murdered a family of four in cold blood, because they didn’t want witnesses to a home invasion and burglary. And because they were reckless, and not as smart as they thought, they got caught.
One of my dreams has been to live in a cabin or trailer in some remote wooded area. I no longer think that’s such a great idea, because psychopaths like Perry and Dick walk the face of the earth, searching for easy targets to rob and kill.
I think Capote got in over his head with this book. His friends said he was never the same afterwards, so scorched was he by this encounter with living, breathing evil, not the abstract evil of philosophers and theologians. He became an alcoholic and drug addict, and died relatively young, a not unusual fate for a genius writer.
I’ve also read two other of his books: Music For Chameleons and Answered Prayers. I think he was one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century, and far superior to Norman Mailer, John Updike, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, etc. But Capote was an oddball who offended many people, which I think damaged his reputation. If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll be properly recognized someday for his outstanding literary achievements. Although small in stature, with a peculiar speaking voice, I rank him as one of the giants of world literature.