This is another one of those books that leaves me lost for words. The whole story and the feelings it arouses are so complex that it’s impossible to say it’s a great book or horrible or disturbing. It’s really all of those combined. It is a good book. It’s extremely well written. It must be or it wouldn’t be so incredibly provoking.
The books itself is a dramatization of the brutal murders of 4 members of a quiet and respectable Kansas family which took place in 1959. Capote starts out by describing the family members and their last day on earth, which creates an eerie atmosphere. He forces you to like the family, because it’s just impossible not to like them, even though you know what is to come and you’re desperately trying to distance yourself from them in order to soften the blow when it does happen. He then goes on to tell the tale of the town after the murders, the tale of the FBI and other law officers who are looking for the killers and the tale of the murderers themselves. The result is an odd mixture of understanding for the town and it’s inhabitants, wanting the FBI to find the killers despite the difficulties they face and an odd sort of sympathy with at least one of the two men who cold bloodedly killed the family.
The murders cause an understandable mistrust amongst the town’s inhabitants because they all assume there must be a reason for the murders other than simply robbery. Mr. Clutter was well known as a man in the town and everyone knew he didn’t carry cash, so robbery couldn’t have been a motive. Therefore it must have been something else and it must, or at least might, be someone who knew him well and committed the crimes for a personal reason. However, while they are busy mistrusting each other, they also show an incredible amount of compassion for the FBI agents, the journalists and even the unknown murderers. The people who live there are so nice to the bone that they are incapable of feeling hate even though evil has invaded them in such a horrendous manner. Even once the killers are captured, they show an incredible amount of compassion, understanding and kindness for them. Most of the town are even against dealing out the death penalty on the grounds that such a penalty would leave the killers too little time to reflect, repent and come to God before their deaths. That amount of compassion and understanding is incredible, especially as seen from this day and age where there is precious little of it, at least on that level, less.
Interspersed with the town’s tale is the story of the two killers, both before and after the crime. He creates an odd view of them by showing them going about their lives. They seem to be more or less regular guys who aren’t really notable in anyway, except on the odd occasion and even then only if you’re looking for it. He tells about their childhoods and teenage years and how their characters developed into men who are capable of murder. As the story continues, the reader is more or less forced to continually reconsider their opinion of the men. In the end, however, it doesn’t really matter how sorry you felt for them or not, both were mentally disturbed in one manner or another and even if you are against the death penalty, there wasn’t much choice according to Kansas law at the time. They either got life with the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Since neither of the two should ever have been let loose in public again, the death penalty was really the only sensible option in regards to the public good.
Frankly, I was glad to finish the book. The death of the family made me infinitely sad and the conflict the book caused between my sense of the death penalty being basically wrong, but the knowledge that these men were truly dangerous and had to be kept for re-entering society was depressing. I was glad to no longer have to deal with the killers and their psyches and to not have to think about the Clutter family and the unfairness of it all. Still, it was a good book and worth the read.