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In Cold Blood

But the gallows itself, with its two pale nooses attached to a crossbeam, was imposing enough; and so, in an unexpected style, was the hangman, who cast a long shadow from his perch on the platform at the top of the wooden instrument's thirteen steps. The hangman, an anonymous, leathery gentleman who had been imported from Missouri for the event, for which he was paid six hundred dollars, was attired in an aged double-breasted pin-striped suit overly commodious for the narrow figure inside it--the coat came nearly to his knees; and on his head he wore a cowboy hat which, when first bought, had perhaps been bright green, but was now a weathered, sweat stained oddity.

--In Cold Blood, Truman Capote.

It's the six hundred dollars of that description that really chills me.

Anyhow, as you might guess, I just finished Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and it was, I thought, quite magnificent. It has a middle section, where Perry Smith, one of the killers, is reading old letters that is tedious, but otherwise there's not a moment in the book where Capote doesn't hold your attention. What is most interesting about the book, however, is that for the most part, you think Capote is giving you an even handed, by the moment reconstruction of the murder of a family and what happens to the two killers after. He's true gift in the book is that he doesn't judge anyone involved: he never absolves Smith and Hickock for the killings, but at the same time, he doesn't take an easy option of portraying them as evil men who deserved to be hanged. Rather, the pair are damaged, both physically and mentally, and are side products of the environment that they have been born into. They are not the only products, Capote is quick to point out, using Smith's sister and Hickock's brother and family to show how people who grew up and existed in the same environments did not end up killing a family. Yet still, Capote walks an oddly sympathetic line for the pair, which at the same time, never says that they are not responsible and that they are not guilty.

It is, really, not until the last section, 'the Corner', so named because it is what inmates had nicknamed the gallows, that Capote's point of the novel begins to shape, and you see that what he is condemning is not the deaths of the family, not the killers, and not anyone else involved, but rather that he has, slowly and across three hundred pages, condemned executions.

Fascinating book.


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Jan. 11th, 2007 12:20 am (UTC)
I find similar kinds of positives in many of what I've come to consider the timeless classics. It's refreshingly nice to read, eh? I love to have an author who doesn't feel the need to beat the reader over the head with an argument, but merely to portray it intelligently, completely (this is important) and beautifully.

Off the top of my head, there are similar themes in Moby Dick (towards whaling, and many, many other topics), Jekyll and Hyde, and even Gene Wolfe's The Book Of The New Sun.

I think possibly Matt Stover's non-Star Wars work is up there too (he'd kill me for suggesting there's a difference, but there is a slight one when you consider the audience). It reads in a very different style as it's so modern, though.

Great review, Ben - this is going on my to read list!
Jan. 11th, 2007 12:22 am (UTC)
* merely to portray it...

... it being the thing the writer wants spinning around your head, not the argument. Pardon my uncouth sentence structure!
Jan. 11th, 2007 03:36 am (UTC)
cool, man. the book is real cool. totally better than MOBY DICK and some star wars books :)
Jan. 11th, 2007 08:27 am (UTC)
moby dick sucks arse.

(but i'd read the capote ;-)
Jan. 11th, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
What didn't you like about it?
Jan. 12th, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
Here is a review of it I wrote as part of an ill-fated book reading challenge I started last year.


Jan. 12th, 2007 11:09 am (UTC)
Haha, I don't agree wholeheartedly but I like your reviewing style! Amusing.

>> "There is a story line[M1], but it tends to get lost in all the detail..."

I'd say it's secondary to the detail, and the undertones. I kind of liked the details and the random chapters too, although (as I was actually just mentioning to a colleague this morning) it took me a month and a half to read the first half, and a week to read the second. I think I concurred with you at first, then it grabbed me.
Jan. 11th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC)
Haha. Surely not better than Darksaber?!? Kevin J. Anderson at his best... oh no, wait, sarcasm aside it probably is...
Jan. 12th, 2007 01:02 am (UTC)
heh. dude, there are so many books out there to read, i dunno why you'd want to even read anderson...
Jan. 12th, 2007 07:53 am (UTC)
All in jest!

Well, I haven't read 'im since I was twelve, at least...
Jan. 11th, 2007 02:23 am (UTC)
Ah, yes. That book really blew me away in high school! Have you seen the film Capote? I recommend it, especially if you enjoyed the book - it makes the brain bubble with ethical considerations.
Jan. 11th, 2007 03:36 am (UTC)
nah, i haven't. i was interested in the film, though, and that was why i finally sat down and read the book. figure i'll aim to check it out shortly.
Jan. 11th, 2007 08:49 am (UTC)
Infamous, another film made around the same time about the same topic, is good.

I enjoyed In Cold Blood. By numerous other accounts it doesn't offer an accurate picture of events at all, though. It doesn't make any mention of Capote's efforts at funding appeals for the killers, and subsequently distancing himself from them.

Jan. 11th, 2007 09:26 am (UTC)
you can kinda tells it's not full accurate, though, i reckon. it's very sympathetic towards smith and hickock--and that in itself reveals that capote's self is all tied into in a weird way. but i'm not much bothered by this, and in fact, the stuff around it, it makes it a bitmore interesting for me.
Jan. 11th, 2007 04:08 am (UTC)
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