Like Yael, my month of hosting/book-choosing coincidentally fell on my one year anniversary in the Unputdownable Book Club. This felt really special; my life has been greatly enriched by this group of women (and their vast literary and culinary selections) over the past year. Even though I was not able to host in my own home, I borrowed my parents’ living room for the evening, which felt cozy and sophisticated. We even had a champagne toast to celebrate the UBC’s 4th anniversary!
I had trouble choosing this month’s book, so I provided three options (which, coincidentally, were all non-fiction novels), and the girls voted to read In Cold Blood. As it turns out, it was a perfect choice for October: a book about murders to be read right around the creepiest time of year – Halloween!
When the film “Capote” came out in 2005, I watched it with my dad, who had read In Cold Blood as a weekly serial in the newspaper back in the 60s. The movie is all about Truman Capote’s research and writing process of this book. It also has incredible acting (Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for best actor), and is quite captivating, whether you’ve read the book or not. I had never even heard of the book when I watched it. Ever since watching that film, though, I’ve wanted to read it.
I watched it again last week, but after reading the book this time. I recommended to all the girls that they do the same – and many did. I think it greatly enhanced our discussion!
Now, to discuss the book.
To summarize, in 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas, a well-respected family (Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter) was brutally murdered in their home. Their seemed to be no motive and very few clues apparent. Truman Capote (with help from Harper Lee) writes about these murders, the town’s reactions, the investigative process and hunt for the killers, the killers’ backgrounds and lives, and their 5-year-long process from trials, appeals, to eventual executions.
I think it’s important to note, again, that this is a work of non-fiction. It is not a murder mystery, nor is it intended to be, so don’t start the book hoping for a suspenseful thriller. Some of the UBC members were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t more exciting. The outcome of the story is commonly known, so the point of reading this book is not to be surprised, but rather, to better understand what happened. This was also the first book of its kind, so would have been an extremely progressive piece of literature back in 1966.
I think that what one can expect when reading this book is this: a beautifully-written, detailed account of the nature of Holcomb, the murdered Clutter family, and the murderers Dick Hickock and especially Perry Smith. Readers will learn about the histories of these two men, and what led them to committing these atrocious acts. Personally, I am fascinated by the idea of psychopaths – I want to know how someone ends up that way and what goes through their minds. Capote achieves this by helping readers sympathize with these men, and giving us quite the impression of the kinds of lives that Dick and Perry led.
Some of the common complaints about this book in our discussion had to do with the sheer amount of detail that was included. It tended to get a bit confusing, even boring at times, since so much of the detail was not entirely relevant to the story – at least not in an obvious way. I am sure that Capote would argue that every detail was relevant in providing context. Apparently Capote and Lee wrote 8,000 pages of notes of research for this book. It took him 6 years to write it. No wonder it was so full of detail!
Overall, most of the book club rated it quite highly. The ratings ranged from 3.5 to 4.5 (out of 5). It did seem to be a struggle for many of our members to actually finish the book, though. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to read it, since it is not an easy read. I wouldn’t say it’s the kind of book you can sit down and read front-to-back in a weekend. However, despite the difficulty finishing it on time, most of the girls said they wanted to go on to finish it, and that they thought it was a really good pick. I have to agree. I loved the book, though admittedly it wasn’t easy, and it sparked lots of really good discussion.
If your book club wants to read it, recommend watching “Capote” as well! It really added to the context and to our debates.
Possible discussion questions for In Cold Blood:
– Does either Dick or Perry seem like a psychopath to you? Why or why not?
– How does Capote insert himself into the book while still remaining invisible to the reader?
– Did both Dick and Perry deserve the death penalty?
-Did you ever sympathize with the killers?
– How does Capote create suspense when the reader already likely knows the outcome of the story?
– Is this a work of journalism?
If you’ve also watched the film:
– Is Capote’s special relationship with Perry obvious when reading the book?
– Do you think that Capote was in love with Perry, or just fascinated by him?
-Was Capote against the death penalty in general, or was he just trying to delay the executions to give himself more time to gather information in order to finish his book?
-Why do you think that this is the last book that Capote ever published?