This is one of the books that it was best to read when it first came out, when it blazed a daring new trail which has since been traveled so frequently that its original now seems tame by modern standards. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that Tom Wolfe said, “The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.” Still, forty years after its publication, there are parts of the book that shine. And for me, those parts have little to do with the gory details, for they come at the very beginning of the book.
It is divided into four main parts. The first, titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” is one of the finest, and perhaps the finest, charatcer portrait I have ever read. Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two youngest children, Nancy and Kenyon, are real people here, people that Capote’s skillful pen allows you to see from all sides. And not just them, but also the handful of people closest to them, and indeed, the greater part of Holcomb, Kansas itself. To think a person like Truman Capote, fresh from his martini and cocaine parties with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, could come to rural Kansas and paint such a lifelike portrait of the people he found there and the lives they led leaves me somewhat in awe of his abilities as a writer. But after I splash a little cold water on my face, I can’t help but wonder how much of what I’m reading is truth and how much is Capote’s own stylized depiction. Either way, it’s a fascinating read and really hooks you in.
But then, I think the rest of the book tends to wander and never really delivers on the literary promise it sets up in its first 75 pages. I personally had a hard time with Capote’s near constant use of quotation marks to insert, I assume, actual phrases picked up during his interviews into his prose. For example, instead of writing:
After all, it was “painful” to imagine that one might be “not just right”—particularly if whatever was wrong was not your own fault but “maybe a thing you were born with.”
He could have just written:
After all, it was painful to imagine that one might be not just right—particularly if whatever was wrong was not your own fault but maybe a thing you were born with.
Was he worried about plagiarism or something? Really, I’m not sure Perry Smith would have minded the liberty. The quoted phrases go on like that for pages and pages, sentence after sentence riddled with them, and really diminished my ability to get into the story. I think I would have seen Perry and Dick Hickock a lot more clearly if my attention wasn’t constantly interrupted by those damn quotation marks.