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NOSTALGIA

A murder, a book and a movie

V. GANGADHAR

Truman Capote's unusual non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, is still popular.



Truman Capote: from Deborah Davis' Party of the Century. Photo: Reuters

WAY back in 1966, after finishing the best seller, In Cold Blood, at one sitting, I wondered why Truman Capote, better known for his light-hearted, fluffy, ethereal fiction, chose a sordid multiple murder as the theme of his book.

One can readily identify Capote, a member of the 1960's jet set and Jack Kennedy's short-lived Camelot, with characters like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Need for change?

This approach was sustained in his other books, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Tree of Night and The Grass Harp. Perhaps, Capote wanted a change from the beautiful, slightly unrealistic world to which he was accustomed.

Intrigued by a report about the multiple murder of the Clutter family at Holcomb town in Kansas, Capote planned an article for the New Yorker magazine but was drawn into expanding it into a full-fledged book. The Clutter murders were extraordinarily bloody and brutal.

The people were scared and distrusted each other but took to the author who made friends with everyone and interviewed hundreds of people without ever taking notes. His memory was extraordinary.

Nearly seven years later, the book appeared. It was the long, detailed report of a crime story written by a master storyteller.

Capote called it a "faction", cross between fact and fiction. Holcomb was immortalised, so were the two young men who had killed four innocent people and paid for the crime with their own lives.

In Cold Blood was not about crime and punishment because the motive was vague. For Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, two minor ex-convicts, the Clutter job was to be a great finale; they would rob the family and leave no witnesses. On a Sunday morning, the sleeping town did not hear the shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six lives.

The murders were most foul, but In Cold Blood is not a breathless crime story, with detectives and the police running after the suspects. It moves at a leisurely pace. Capote focuses on the personality, background and habits of the killers.

Creative instinct

From the outset, we know who the killers are and Perry appealed more to Capote's creative instinct. He saw in Perry, a hunted animal, scorned by society. "Perry, though a murderer, aroused another response," writes Capote. "He possessed the quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded that no one could disregard. He was the dwarfish boy-man seated on the metal chair, his small booted feet not quite brushing the floor.'.

Throughout the book, Capote remains the observant crime reporter, his genius taking over when he sits down to write the book. Every character, major, minor or even the animals, (like 'Babe', the fat old horse owned by the Clutter kids) comes alive.

As I re read the book recently, I squirmed uneasily, having imagined that I heard the shot gun blasts once more.

There was an earlier movie version of In Cold Blood, but the film "Capote" is more about the writer himself. Most of the material — about Capote's intellectual arrogance and selfishness — is taken from a biography by Gerald Clark. The movie has a remarkable performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays Capote and follows the recent Hollywood trend of filming the lives of those who had died recently like aviator Howard Hughes. But it is not a patch on the book.

Capote is no Agatha Christie or P.D. James, but in In Cold Blood he elevates crime writing to unusual heights. Unlike a murder mystery, we know what is going to happen in this book, yet follow the narrative breathlessly.

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