I recently read In Cold Blood and, as I said in my last post, it has addled my brain. Which is never a good thing because the unfortunate thing has enough trouble as it is, what with attempting to function on a daily basis and all.
In Cold Blood is a non-fiction crime novel written by Truman Capote, and published in the sixties. It was the first of its kind, and it was kind of a hit. Not least because it was based on the real life multiple killings of the Clutter family, and ended in the execution of the criminals; however, I think Capote’s writing and portrayal of the two anti-heroes might have something to do with it also.
Because this novel is brilliant.
No, I am not some sadistic lunatic who revels in stories of gore – far from it. Because firstly I am not, and secondly this novel does not indulge in gore. Which is quite remarkable if you think about it, especially if you consider the fact that it’s based on the true story of multiple murders. Four, to be precise.
In November 1959, between the late and early morning hours of the thirteenth and fourteenth of that cold winter month the Clutter family were tied up and murdered in their home. The community was baffled as to who could have done the killings and why. The Clutters were a well-respected family in their small town of Holcomb, Kansas – known and loved by all.
“… ‘that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless. I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed.’”
Unsurprisingly, feelings were running high and when the two killers were caught the state wanted revenge. Capote himself was against capital punishment but in no part of this novel do his opinions ever surface – unless they are voiced through the similar opinions of the countless townspeople he interviewed as his research on the novel. An undertaking which cost him six years. Six years which culminated in this brilliant novel.
The novel opens with descriptions of the Clutter’s small town Holcomb, its people, and the Clutters themselves. It then alternates between description of the Clutters, and the two men Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote avoids painting Hickock and Smith as anything but human. He allows us into their heads which are filled with common-place worries and thoughts; they’re men who worry about how they’re going to survive, one worries about his parents, the other ponders on the existence of God. There is no initial description that could potentially be conceived as animalistic.
The killings occur pretty soon in the first half of the novel, but sneaky Capote doesn’t allow the readers onto the scene. The actual killing is not described much later, in the third section once the killers are caught and statements are extracted from them. That’s what so effective about this novel. Before letting his readers see the ‘monstrosity’ of Hickock and Smith Capote keeps on forcing them to acknowledge the killers’ humanity. That’s there is some ‘us’ in ‘them’ and vice versa.
|Truman Capote, via|
And after all that Capote still insists that they are monsters, too. That there was an integral evil in them which caused them to act as they did.
” ‘Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean – I’m not. I don’t feel anything about it. I wish I did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit. Half an hour after it happened, Dick was making jokes and I was laughing at them. Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself. Sorry I can’t walk out of here when you walk out. But that’s all.’ ”
Reading that quote how can you not feel repulsed? At the same time, I found myself thinking do we only imagine that we would feel repulsed? Caught in a similar situation what would our reaction be, in the immediacy of the moment? There’s a point when Smith describes the desperate extent of the situation, the unbelievable low his life had sunk to and his sudden realization of it, which precipitates in his killing:
” ‘I frisked the girl’s room, and I found a little purse…Inside was a silver dollar. I dropped it somehow, and it rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, and all this talk about a rich man’s safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child’s silver dollar. One dollar. And I’m crawling on my belly to get it….
…. I knelt down beside Mr Clutter, and the pain of kneeling – I thought of that goddamn dollar. Silver dollar. The shame. Disgust. …But I didn’t realize what I’d done till I heard the sound.”
Smith doesn’t actually realize that he has killed the man because he’s so consumed with the injustice of his whole life. And by that point, the readers are aware of it, too. Of his miserable childhood, his dysfunctional family, the traumatizing events he underwent at an orphanage. That’s what’s so clever about Capote – he knows people will be very quick to judge regarding this kind of situation. But he doesn’t let us in on the killing, until we have actually been immersed in the lives of the killers. He deals out every detail about their lives, their actions, both humane and inhumane, and then he says, “Go on. You have all the info. Go ahead and judge all you want.”
This is turned out to be a bit of a long-winded review. But no matter how long-winded I get, you won’t be able to appreciate the full impact of the book until you read it yourself. It’s an experience that every reader should undertake themselves. I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of fifteen (and mature young readers as well). It’s such a probing, questioning novel. And yes, it’s non-fiction, but it’s the most captivating non-fictional novel that I’ve read. All the narratives of the townfolk, and the detectives and lawyers involved are fitted so seamlessly together, and Capote’s position as interviewer never intrudes on the story. It’s truly a well-crafted novel and not one to be missed.
4.5 out of 5 silver dollars