“On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues…"
--The book jacket for In Cold Blood
“You know, my mom read this when she was 19 or 20, and she was so scared that while she was reading it, my granddad—her dad—came home from work, and she wouldn’t let him in the house until he slid his ID under the door.”
--Amanda C., One of our book club members
And so our conversation began. We discussed why this book, written in the 60s, was scary and sensational then but not now. In Cold Blood certainly has a creepy, No Country for Old Men feel to it, but we certainly wouldn’t feel unsafe reading it alone at night. We concluded that true crime, perhaps an emerging genre in America when Capote wrote this, is now a relative familiarity, even if we don’t read them. Also, we’ve been desensitized to the idea of mass murderers: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy…OJ. It’s like watching Psycho—we experience it because of its importance, not b/c we hope to experience what the original audience felt. And that divide is what makes In Cold Blood a seminal work but not a great book club book.
Our discussion was engaging at certain points, but overall, it was stilted. For example, we talked about the respective psychologies of Perry and Dick. We explored their relationship with each other as well as their individual motivations for the murder. The problem we kept encountering was this: we’re not psychologists. The individual points one of us would try to make and the collective understanding we tried to come to as a group would abruptly halt because we didn’t have the necessary background to delve deeper. It’s like our intellects wanted to run further, but our education (or lack of specialized education) kept cramping our strides.
We decided that this book would make for a good discussion among journalists, psychologists, even 20th century historians, but not among us: a hodgepodge of teachers, students, and business people. Our talk did veer into the direction of what the book would have focused on had a woman written it. Would a female writer have focused on the same things that Capote did? Would more time have been spent detailing the relationships Dick and Perry had with some of the more tangential characters? Oddly, we spent the most time discussing the difference between male and female writing sensibilities. As always, we tried to make connections with previous books; the only books that really came to mind were the Sherlock Holmes volumes we read in ’06.
Overall, In Cold Blood is an interesting mystery full of colorful, real life characters. It just didn’t make for good discussion fodder. I don’t know how often this nonfiction novel turns up in book club circles, but I’m curious to know how well other groups have dealt with it.