Jason Austin shares with us a book he loved for our new 'What I Loved' series.
About ten years ago I was stuck for something to read. You might think it strange that a bookseller was bereft of reading material, but, like most, we too have those moments where nothing piques our interest.
It was at the back of one of my bookshelves that I found a bruised copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I’d picked it up a year or so before. The back cover was ripped and the spine was a bit crushed; it looked a little pathetic and maybe because of its brokenness, I opened the front cover.
The title of the first chapter ‘The Last to See Them Alive’ had me interested. By the time I’d read the first paragraph, I was in.
In Cold Blood is a recounting of the killing of the Clutter family in their Kansas farmhouse in November 1959 by two ex-cons on parole, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. While in prison, a fellow prisoner and ex-employee of Herbert Clutter had told the duo that the family had a safe stacked with cash. Hickock and Smith devised a plan to take the money and leave no witnesses. Unfortunately for all involved, their source was wrong and Mr Clutter, his wife and two of their children were brutally killed.
Written in 1966, this book has been called the first non-fiction novel, a description that has been disputed over time. Regardless, Capote’s true-crime masterpiece reads more like a multi-layered piece of fiction rather than dry reportage. It’s a chilling and insightful document that I feel is as relevant today as it was when written 46 years ago.
Capote’s skill in writing the lives of the Clutter family before their deaths makes the murder act devastating when it actually comes. In succinct passages heavy with exposition, the author performs a fine balancing act. It’s not what he chooses to tell but how it’s told that is remarkable.
No part of the story goes unnoticed or unreported. From the crime to the apprehension of the perpetrators to the court case and the outcome, all of the main players are fleshed out in meticulous detail. The descriptions of people, place and time are palpable.
But this is more than the story of a murder. Capote spends a great deal of the book with the killers, getting into their heads and finding out what made them tick. How did they become the men that they were? Their past and destinies are traced out in such a way that the reader almost feels empathy for them. Almost.
Capote spent five years researching this book with his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, as documented in the films Infamous and Capote. It was his last major work.
Jason Austin is a buyer and bookseller at Readings Carlton. An avid painter, Scrabble player and reader, he enjoys long walks with nothing but the company of an iPod full of podcasts.