Monday, September 12, 2016

A haunted past

I don't want to be the kind of person who's super into true crime because I have a strong negative association with people who are into true crime. But that doesn't mean I'm not the sort of person who likes reading about serial killers or manhunts or the messy judicial process of an alleged killer being brought to trial. So basically I'm a snob who thinks true crime "is beneath me" but who is way into true crime.

I don't know, it's complicated. I know like four people who have serial killer tattoos and I live with one person who loves watching true crime but that overlaps with watching Nancy Grace and high profile trials. And that I can't hang with. I think the history of crime is fascinating, I think reading about trials is fascinating, I think reading about serial killers is fascinating, but there's this fannish culture that's grown out of true crime that I find incredibly gross and bloodthirsty and voyeuristic and I just can't hang with it.

But I did enjoy reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood more than many of the other books I've read about murders or tracking down serial rapists or court cases and I think it's because Capote elevates it with a level of sympathy that's hard to pin down for murders without being creepy as fuck. Capote's portrayal of the killers shows them as murderers who made terrible choices and did awful things but who were still people with families or who loved animals or who had been very badly hurt without ever attempting to excuse their crimes.

Which I think gets into the heart of why I don't like the fannishness of true crime as it exists today. Either human murderers are completely dehumanized and turned into demonic monsters (which only serves to terrify viewers and blow up cultural anxiety and give money to Nancy Grace) or the scales get tipped too far toward sympathy and you end up with Charles Manson getting married to a young woman who has been a fan of him her whole life. Worship and abject terror shouldn't be the only two reactions we have to violence or crime - and I think that Capote's detached consideration and curiosity are a more understandable and reasonable reaction.

It's clear that Capote was fascinated by his subjects but remained horrified by their crime while still being contemptuous of both them and the community reaction to them. In Cold Blood is a compelling book because it walks a fine line everywhere it goes - the townspeople are sympathetic but banal, the murdered family were well-loved but elitist, the murderers are admirable but stupid. He portrays multiple shades and angles of all of his subjects and leaves the reader to muddle through the mess of a murder motivated by money, a score that didn't score and left the world more empty.

It's a sad book, and occasionally a very funny book. Capote obviously has his opinions about the people he wrote about but doesn't pass judgement. It seems like a cleaner experience with true crime than I'm used to and I appreciated not feeling like I needed to take a shower when I finished the book.

And it doesn't hurt that Capote is a tremendously competent artist. The landscapes and people spring to life as you read and fill with the rustling of grain and the percussion of empty bottles rocking in the back seat of a stolen car. He leaves you feeling clean but sun-weathered and dust-coated like many of his subjects; you feel the loneliness of a prairie morning and the close comfort of a corrupted game room just as easily as you feel the sparkling waters and thrumming fishing poles of a Mexican resort.

Capote's touch is brilliant in many places throughout this book but it's genius when it comes to setting a scene for the reader to play a part in.


Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Vintage Books. New York: New York. 2012. (1965).

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