In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I’m not sure whether Truman Capote intended this or not, but it seems to me that In Cold Blood is nothing less than a meditation on the absolute banality of evil.

The triumph of the book—and it is a triumph—belongs to Capote, who crafted a new style of journalism with this book. By writing a non-fiction book using the conventions of a novel, Capote was able to bring an immediacy to the story that is lacking from most non-fiction and especially from most “true crime” books, a genre that has attracted more than its fair share of hacks looking to sensationalize the gruesome details of someone else’s last day on earth. Capote doesn’t sensationalize anything here. In many ways, and this isn’t a criticism, the story is as flat as the Kansas landscape in which it takes place.

For me, the most effective part of the book was the first. Capote alternates sections of Book 1 between the story of a typical November day for the Clutter family (going to the insurance agent, helping a friend bake pies, etc) with the day of Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith (eating lunch, going to the general store to buy stockings and rope). The reader is lulled into a sense of complete normalcy, though there is definitely something amiss. Book 1 ends with the meeting of the Clutter family and Hickcock/Smith, and the slaughter that electrified and terrorized the tiny town of Holcomb.

The subsequent sections deal with the aftermath and investigation of the crime, intercut with the killers wandering aimlessly in the West and Mexico looking for work (but not too hard), planning more petty crimes. It is the testimony of a prisoner who had told Hickcock about the Clutter family and their mythical safe with thousands of dollars in it, that leads to the arrest, conviction, and, eventually, the execution. Four shotgun blasts lead to six deaths, all of which are “in cold blood.”

Throughout, the novelistic prose takes the story way past the ordinary true crime story. Because Capote had incredible access to almost all the parties involved (including both killers), it allows him to take the form of the omniscient narrator. This is the essential ingredient that most true crime books are missing: in depth interviews with the criminals. Yes, Perry and Hickcock are portrayed with a degree of sympathy, but the murders themselves are never excused as the byproducts of not enough quality time with Daddy.

Unlike a book like Helter Skelter, the prosecutor’s version of the Manson murders, Capote doesn’t make the villains of his piece larger than life. Nor does he canonize the victims, or inflate his own role in the story. Bonnie Clutter’s fight with mental illness is discussed, as is the rough childhood of Perry Smith. When Capote does appear, he is in the nameless character of “a reporter.” In Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi made Manson and his followers larger than life and twice as mean. Capote portrays the killers here as exactly what they were: a couple of bored losers and petty criminals who, through a combination of arrogance, stupidity, and viciousness, entered the Big Time by killing four people.

It’s telling that when Hickcock and Smith were caught, the townspeople at first were incredulous. They had fully expected that this was some sort of professional hit organized by someone in town. They found it easier to believe that one of their neighbors and friends had planned and organized this than to believe that a couple of strangers had done it. Robbery was the goal (and perhaps the rape of young Nancy Clutter by Dick Hickcock—thwarted by Perry Smith who had no tolerance for sex crimes), but it was acknowledged that the murder might be necessary. “No witnesses,” the soon-to-be killers agreed over lunch. The killers knew nothing about Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter. They didn’t have to. The identities of the victims, and the lives they led, were never considered. As simple as that.

This is the dirty secret of this kind of evil. It’s all very ordinary. John Wayne Gacy killed over 30 people, and was a pillar of the community and a clown at kids’ parties. Jeffrey Dahmer was the normal guy who lived next door who kept body parts in his refrigerator in case he got hungry. Ted Bundy was an extremely intelligent man active in local politics when he wasn’t luring girls into his traps. Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith were just punks looking for a quick cash fix (the better to blow it in Vegas, most likely). That’s all they were. Yes, they had rough childhoods…especially Perry. But as one character in the book says, “So what? So did I. I may drink a little more, but I don’t kill people.”

We are conditioned to believe that evil froths at the mouth. It is recognizable in the over-the-top gesticulations and overheated rhetoric of Adolf Hitler, or in the wild eyes of Charles Manson, and it exists on 24-hour news channels. That’s all very comforting because we believe we can avoid evil as long as we can avoid those scary people. In Cold Blood reminds us that it also exists in settings as bucolic as the flat plains of Kansas, and it looks a lot like the guy standing next to you in the store, buying rope and joking with his friend.

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The Terror, by Dan Simmons

A horror novel disguised as historical fiction, or vice versa. In The Terror, Dan Simmons, a brilliant writer of many different genres, tells the true story of the HMS Erebus, commanded by Sir John Franklin, and the HMS Terror, commanded by Francis Crozier. The facts are all there: both ships were ordered to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Both ships became icebound. The canned food supplies on both ships were tainted with food poisoning. Both ships were abandoned and all hands perished on a long, brutal walk through an Arctic nightmare. There is some evidence of cannibalism.

But the story of what actually happened to the expedition can never be fully known. The ships were found, as were some remains. But what went on will remain forever a mystery. What Simmons has done here is fill in the mystery with fantastical fiction.

Simmons sticks to the facts in the broadest terms, but drops in heavy dollops of Inuit mythology and some of the trappings of horror fiction including a huge white creature that hunts and kills the men of the ships like a cat playing with a box full of mice. At first it is thought to be a polar bear, but it soon becomes clear that this is a monster on a whole other level.

The only problem is that this is a bridge too far. The fictionalized story of the expedition was harrowing. The monster on the ice seemed like it came from a different book (a potentially good book, but a different book nonetheless). The book is extremely long (almost 800 pages of a large bound paperback) and crammed with details about life on the ships, the horrific effects of scurvy, a full chapter on delerium tremens, etc. It’s not unlike Moby Dick in its attention to detail, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The last 100 pages or so of the book ties up the one remaining loose end from the previous 700 pages…the fate of Captain Crozier. It’s 100 pages of hallucinatory prose, mixed with poetry, blended with Inuit creationist mythology (at least the monster is explained…I was beginning to think it wouldn’t be), and standard expository prose. Nearly all of it could have been cut or condensed.

Simmons is a great writer and always worth reading. However, this book is nearly 300 pages too long. Edited down to a more than reasonable 450 pages, this book may have been classic Dan Simmons. As is, it’s a lot of work to put in for a relatively small payoff.

Consolers Of The Lonely, by The Raconteurs

Consolers of the LonelyBack in 2006, the White Stripes’ Jack White, solo artist Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes rhythm section of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler released Broken Boy Soldiers, the soundtrack of four immensely talented friends hanging out and writing and recording music.

Soldiers was a gem of an album. It clocked in at about 35 minutes, full of tight performances and gritty work. Along with Pearl Jam’s eponymous disc, it was one of the great records of 2006.

Two years and one White Stripes album later, they have returned with a more serious effort. Consolers Of The Lonely is the band recording in a professional studio (as opposed to Brendan Benson’s attic), and taking the time to write songs. The result is the best album of 2008 so far and, barring a miracle, the best album of 2008 when the calendar rolls around to January of 2009.

While Soldiers was a great, loose recording by four friends, Consolers is the sound of an actual band firing on all cylinders. Soldiers sounded like a side project for the musicians involved; Consolers sounds like a mission statement.

Where the songs on the first album sounded, in some cases, like sketches and ideas, the songs here sound like they’ve been crafted with loving hands. The fact that at this point in time both White and Benson seem to be in the zone where everything they touch turns gold certainly helps.

The album starts with some of the same looseness of the first album. There is studio dialogue, and a little girl’s voice asks to be told the story about the chicken. Then the title track comes roaring in like a typhoon of crushing riffs. More studio chatter as someone says, “We’ll doubletrack that.”

Over the course of the next 55 minutes, the Raconteurs open up the textbook about everything good in rock music. Three part harmonies; swapped lead vocals, guitar crunch, punchy horn sections, a mix of rockers and ballads, cool lyrics, diverse instrumentation, great melodies. If you are a fan of rock music in general, and not hung up on one genre or another (“I only listen to Metallica, man!”), then there is absolutely nothing on this album not to like. Every song should please the average rock music fan. It is more melodic than the White Stripes (thanks to Benson), heavier than Benson (thanks to White), and has a rhythm section most bands would kill for.

Benson and White complement each other as perfectly as Lennon and McCartney. Lennon was the literate rocker who wrote some great ballads; McCartney was the consummate romantic balladeer who wrote some brutally heavy rockers. Similarly, White brings the heavy to the Raconteurs while also writing great ballads and melodies, and Benson brings a golden ear for melody, a rich strong voice, and a willingness to turn the amps up to 11. Or even 12 in some places. Together, and all but one song are co-written by White and Benson, they have written the finest songs to appear on a rock album in years.

From the Sergio Leone feel of “The Switch and the Spur” to the riff-o-rama of “Salute Your Solution” and the title track to the neo-soul of “Many Shades Of Black” to the intense balladry of “You Don’t Understand Me” to the manic “Five On The Five” to the smartly chosen cover of Terry Reid’s “Rich Kid Blues” to the epic Gothic murder ballad/story-song “Carolina Drama,” Consolers Of The Lonely is as close to perfect as an album gets. Not only are there no bad tracks, there are no missteps at all. This is smart rock music, lovingly crafted, and meticulously recorded.

This is not simply a good album or even a great album. This is a classic album.

The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz

Just thinking, I can remember when he was Dean R. Koontz. I wonder whatever happened to that.

At this point, having read every Dean Koontz book except the two most recent (still in hardcover) and the eleven or twelve he has ready to release in the next six months, I’m not even sure how to review it. I guess I’ll start with the simplest statement.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, a quick read (about 450 pages in a couple of days), and by tomorrow I will have forgotten what it was about, just like I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot was to Dark Rivers Of The Heart, Mr. Murder, The Face, or The House Of Thunder.

Dean Koontz books are the literary equivalent of James Bond movies. Some are excellent (Casino Royale), some are good (Diamonds Are Forever), some are wretched (Moonraker). Almost all of them have the same basic set up.

So let’s create a recipe for a Dean Koontz book:

  • Average guy/girl, bruised and saddened by life, gets involved in dangerous situation
  • Average guy meets plucky girl who is somehow caught up in the situation
  • Very, very bad guy with delusions of being somehow above all humanity pursues average guy and plucky girl
  • Add one cute canine at some point
  • Stir government conspiracy into the mix (optional)
  • Chase scene across many miles
  • Final confrontation; average guy and plucky girl emerge victorious
  • Average guy and plucky girl get married

The above description fits about 85% of Dean Koontz’s books. It’s a formula. The downside of this is that his most of his characters are essentially interchangeable, and most of the set pieces of the plot can be swapped from novel to novel. Is there any difference whatsoever in the chase scenes between The Good Guy and, say, Dark Rivers Of The Heart? Nope, not really.

However, it’s a good formula. It works and provides for a nice, easy read. Mom’s apple pie is made the same way every time, with the same ingredients. But damn, it’s tasty every single time.

This is a mid-level Dean Koontz book. It’s far superior to his lazy efforts like The House Of Thunder or The Voice in the Night, but not up to the level of the books where his formula includes honest-to-God inspiration (Dark Rivers Of The Heart, Hideaway, Phantoms, Whispers, Darkfall, Strangers, the “Odd Thomas” books) or where he breaks from the formula (Intensity, The Taking).

Looking for a nice light read for the beach? The Good Guy satisfies nicely. Looking for something challenging that will make you think and reassess the nature of God, man, and nature? Stick with Tolstoy.