In Cold Blood
I first read In Cold Blood years ago, so many that I couldn’t remember much about it except that I enjoyed it. I suppose the fact that I liked it shouldn’t be surprising; the book is a 20th century American classic, the progenitor of 364.1523, a number every public librarian knows (the True Crime section within the Dewey Decimal system). Yet I was surprised. This is, after all, a book about a grisly murder, and it details the lives of a couple of amoral petty criminals, who, one fateful evening in 1959, slaughtered a family and shocked and frightened most of the state of Kansas. Grim stuff, but riveting. It’s that exhaustive detail that really makes In Cold Blood such a thought-provoking read.
The twentieth century has come and gone, and its collection of famous serial killers – Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy – have deadened the shock value of the 1959 Clutter family murder and eclipsed this crime in the history books. But at the time, and for the place, this kind of crime was unheard of. A man and his family killed in their family home for no apparent reason. A man who is well-liked as an employer and a citizen and a family who is equally well respected, tied up and gunned down in their home with no trace of the killers left behind; this was the kind of incident that was beyond comprehension.
In Cold Blood was, of course, the book that made Truman Capote. Having read about the Clutter murders in The New York Times, he decided to travel to Kansas to research the crimes and the community. It’s clear from his narrative that he did just that. There is a tremendous amount of information here about the Clutter family, about the crime itself, about the criminals, and about the community’s reaction, both individually and collectively. The story is told in narrative, with the dialogue recreated from the participants’ accounts of what happened. Capote breaks the book down into sections, beginning with the day that the Clutters are killed, in which he describes what both the Clutters and the killers did hour by hour, and ending with the killers’ death sentence being carried out in a Kansas state penitentiary.
To the average romance reader, this might not sound like compelling reading. Even with justice served, one can hardly classify the ending of In Cold Blood as “Happily Ever After.” But many readers of this genre look to romance for its characterization, its dissection of a person’s emotions and psyche, and that is exactly what Capote offers here, albeit not that of heroic individuals.
What is most impressive here is how Capote lays out his information. The Clutters as people are not the focus of the novel. They were upstanding citizens, successful and kind people. Capote details enough of their lives to give the reader a sense of exactly how senseless their murders were. Good people, however, don’t always make for the most compelling reading. The meat of this story concerns the two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In arranging his story chronologically, Capote shows his readers what kind of men they were. In turns they are calculating, sinister, greedy, petty, superstitious, paranoid, careless, carefree, sulky, ashamed, and unrepentant.
Dick Hickock is the easier of the pair to understand. His outlook is clearly sociopathic; he never spares a thought for anyone except himself. Only occasionally does he reflect that his life is a source of pain and humiliation for his family. His personal charm and easygoing manner is a façade for his true sadistic character. Yet over and over people are fooled by him. Even Perry who sees him at his worst and knows what he’s made of feels a strange sense of loyalty to him.
Perry Smith, as the most complex figure in these murders, gets the greatest amount of page space. He is the one who pulled the trigger, who actually did the dirty work of killing the Clutters, yet it is difficult not to feel sorry for him as his childhood was so difficult and painful and as an adult he suffered physically and emotionally. It’s clear that he was a very damaged individual who at various times in his life was the victim of copious betrayal and abuse. At the center of In Cold Blood is the question: What makes a man into a killer? Capote attempts to answer it in regards to Perry Smith by including a good deal of primary source material – letters from his acquaintances, summations of his life history by his family, psychologists’ reports, his own accounts of his life. And each time something new is revealed about him, the reader must revise her opinion of Perry’s character. Is this man a cold-blooded killer? Is he capable of kindness or humanity? Would things have been different for him had he never met Dick Hickock or would they have eventually played out much the same?
Also interesting is the portrait Capote draws of Midwestern America in the 1950s. In some ways it seems idyllic. The people of Holcomb are straightforward, capable, and honest. They work hard, and their pleasures are simple. Nancy Clutter, at 16, is immensely capable and self-sufficient. She designs and sews her own clothes, and wins fair prizes for her baking and canning. There are people struggling financially in this community, but their struggles are fairly basic. No one is drowning in credit card debt and no one is obsessed about credit ratings. People as a whole agree on right and wrong and aren’t afraid to articulate what they believe. The climate can be harsh, but the land is beautiful, and neighbors help each other. On the other hand, Bonnie Clutter’s life is crippled by her struggles with depression; there is no cure, and no one quite understands her.
Personally I like the True Crime sub-genre when it’s done well, and In Cold Blood is done very well. It succeeds as a character study for people and place and time. While it centers around murder, this is not an exceptionally gory tale, and Capote never sensationalizes. Readers who like rich characterization in their fiction might very well enjoy a foray into something a little different. If this sounds intriguing to you, you should be able to find it at almost any public library. Just look for the numbers 364.1523.