Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Cold Blood and Other True Crime Questions

Our daughter was asked to write a literary review of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote as part of her college-level composition class.  Over the years, I have tried to read along with whatever the kids were assigned at school, but this one caused some hesitation.  I have never been a true-crime fan or even an advocate of violent detail in fiction, so I was unsure that I wanted these pictures in my head.  I was also unsure about a 17-year-old having these images, but she sees much worse during the average Saturday night trip to the cinema and she didn't seem concerned.  This brought up a slew of questions so, since she had the assignment, I decided to join in and look at some of the issues.  I will admit that I'm finding the story fascinating in ways, but disturbing in so many others.

We live about forty-five miles from Holcomb, where these events occurred, and Dave lived in Holcomb as a child (moving there nine years after the murders).  This connection gives the story another layer of interest - Dave remembers some of the people and places involved - but it also adds an incredible feeling of disrespect.  Turning a tragedy into entertainment feels like voyeurism of the worst kind to me.

My next issue is with this book - or any true-crime book - as an assignment for teens, and especially for teens in this area who's parents and grandparents may have painful memories of that time (the Clutter family was killed in 1959, so there are still many residents here who were friends and acquaintances of those involved).  I have met some adults who have declined to read the book or see the movie and are reluctant to even discuss the crimes. Should their grandchildren be forced to as a school assignment?  Does the passage of time make a difference? 

What do you think of true-crime books in general?  The Columbine killings are a good example.  There are several books out covering those events and delving into the lives of both the victims and the killers.  Is it disrespectful to the victims and their families?  Are they appropriate for high school/college reading assignments?  Does it encourage future perpetraters who envision themselves as the villians of a bestseller or even a movie?

And finally, the movie.  Our daughter was planning to watch the black and white, Robert Blake version, but I am encouraging her not to because I know that the violence is naturally more graphic than the book.  This is a girl who loves horror films, so I'm not afraid of her having nightmares, but a group of girls viewing this film in the same context as Texas Chainsaw Massacre strikes me as dancing on someone's grave.  I just don't think they are able to recognize the film as depicting actual events, and to them 50 years ago may as well have been 500.  What's the difference between watching this and watching Braveheart?

Let me hear from you, please.  Am I being too touchy or is the world being cold-hearted?  Does tabloid journalism anesthetize us to the tragedies around us or does knowing the details help protect us?


  1. I've always been uncomfortable with how very much I "enjoy" In Cold Blood. It's creepy, because this was a horrible act that took place only hundreds of miles from my hometown. The combination of these brutal details and Capote's beautiful, almost delicate prose is what makes the book even more unsettling than if it had been clunkily written. So yes, I hate that split feeling of horror at the random casual cruelty of the two criminals so painstakingly detailed and that undercurrent of pleasure at reading a master writer at work. Thanks for posting about this...I've been thinking about this very same thing for several years.

  2. I love that book - for the ground it broke and the dedication to the subject Capote had. I always felt he treated things with great respect - not sensationalization. He wanted to know why, and probably got farther into the minds of the killers than anyone could have shared otherwise. It showed a human side to both good and evil, and that was uncomfortable. I can certainly understand why reading this could be painful to members of the community. I'm not sure that it would be a helpful exercise for them. But for those removed from the direct parties involved, it is a piece of history to perhaps learn from. And Capote's ability to present it as he did is for me, something to value. I have seen the movie version you mentioned. I do not recall any gore whatsoever. The disturbing images were left off screen to be created in the viewer's imagination. Or perhaps I wiped it from my memory. It has been about 5 years since I watched it. I thought it was a pretty decent adaption of the book. Certainly chilling - but not gory.