This book made the list after an offhand recommendation from a friend, whose tastes in reading have often been similar to mine. I really like crime and thriller novels, but the thing that really sets this book apart is that it’s non-fiction. It was published in 1966 and details the murder of the Clutter family, that took place in 1959 in Kansas. It’s the second biggest selling true crime book in history and is a really fantastic book.
Since it’s a true story, the book is not a murder mystery in the traditional sense. There’s no question of ‘whodunnit’ or if the perpetrators will get away with it – the killers, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickcock and Perry Smith, were arrested six weeks after the murders took place. What keeps you reading on is to find out more and more about the motivations for the killings and the psychology of the murderers, details that Capote drips out to you chapter by chapter.
The chapters are told with different focuses – from the investigating police officer, Al Dewey, and the people of Holcomb (the Clutters’ hometown) to those of the murderers, with a particular focus on Perry Smith, in whom Capote had a deep interest. Knowing it’s a true story means that there’s a certain amount more morbid curiosity around the whole narrative – Capote can provoke the same level of grim fascination and thrill in his readers as other crime novels but without the same gory details that usually sit behind this. It’s the smaller details that Capote includes that makes the book chilling.
The novel takes an interestingly balanced view of both sides of the story – there is little sense of judgement on the murderers; Capote wants us to really understand them as complex characters rather than just villains, which is particularly interesting in the case of Perry. His story and viewpoint are the most closely documented in the novel, and it is our perception of him which undergoes the most change and challenges throughout. You’re left with uncertainty over your opinion of him – is he a cold-blooded killer, misunderstood and mistreated, socially challenged, psychopathic, deserving of your sympathy, clinically insane or a mix of all of them? The fact that I kept changing my mind and couldn’t work out exactly what I thought of him was really compelling, and kept me reading on until the end to see if I would come to a final resolution on it. As it happens, I didn’t, and I don’t think Capote really wants you to. It raised a lot of interesting questions about the psychology of serial killers and mass murderers that we don’t often consider when we hear of their crimes reported in the media.
Capote is also very clever in releasing different details about the murderers and expanding your insight into their relationship and backgrounds at the same time as giving you more details about the Clutter family and the impact that their murder has had on the community. He really plays with your sympathies, leaving you in a quandary about what to think.
All in all, this is a really great book – it manages to be a gripping thriller despite the fact that you know the crime from the beginning and the outcome from the outset, which a real achievement. It made me interested to know more about Truman Capote and read other things he’s written. I watched the film, Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is really worthwhile if you like this book. It gives some further context to Capote’s own fascination with the story and with Perry Smith in particular, along with his relationship with Harper Lee and his eccentric personality.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥