Thursday, July 28, 2011

Optional Work: In Cold Blood

This book joins the ranks of the few others on this M.A. exam list that I have given five stars on It is indeed that good. It could have gotten very boring very quickly due to its true crime/nonfiction nature and the necessity of including names, dates, and facts. But Truman Capote made In Cold Blood entirely compelling and haunting without making it so detailed and gruesome that a semi-delicate reader would have to put it down. And even though the reader is aware from the outset has to how it all ends, the novel is still extremely suspenseful and never stops being interesting.


This is of course a true crime/nonfiction book. It is also considered a pioneering work of the true crime genre. On November 15, 1959 Dick Hickock and Perry Smith entered the home of Herbert Clutter in Holcomb, Kansas and proceeded to tie up the four family members who lived there, search the home for money that they had believed was there, and then shot all four family members in the head with a shotgun. They were originally looking for around the amount of $10,000, as a fellow inmate led them to believe Mr. Clutter had a wall safe of some sort where he kept massive amounts of cash. Truth is, Herbert Clutter never carried cash but did all transactions by check. When Dick and Perry finally left the house, they drove away only approximately $50 richer.

While the main focus of the novel is the actual crimes, Capote begins with the Clutter family, and then moves out to describing the family and friends, and then eventually Holcomb community, and then he goes into Dick and Perry and their life as criminals before, during, and after the crime, as well as the effect of the crime on the community itself. The book ends with an account of the crimes from both Dick and Perry’s points of view, which is actually the first time Capote tells the reader what happened that night in that house, as in the beginning of the book he simply states what the family did that night, who saw them last, and who found them the next morning. Dick and Perry are eventually executed for what they have done, and Capote gives the account of their final moments.


It is initially difficult for me to deal with themes when it comes to something that is supposed to be nonfiction. However, In Cold Blood is written much like a fiction novel and holds a person’s interest like one. No doubt that it is well-crafted and well thought out in its organization.

As I mentioned before, despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome of the events from the very beginning (before that even, since the book jacket gives it away), there is still a very real element of suspense here. The book very methodically takes you through what went on a few days before, slowly leading up to the actual event, only to skip the event and then slowly lead up to the capture and trial of Dick and Perry. The reader isn’t given a detailed account of how the killers did it until the end. And even still, the reader has to wait some more until the killers are inevitably executed. I maintain it is a difficult thing to hold suspense when your audience has already been given the answers.

Capote also sets up a very real contrast between the lives wholesome Clutter family and that of Dick and Perry. Mr. Clutter is painted by Capote to be a good man with few enemies due to the many testimonies of the people of Holcomb. Dick and Perry, however, are ex-cons even before they committed this gruesome crime, and the descriptions of their adventures make it very hard to sympathize or give them credit in any way simply because of the juxtaposition with the Clutters. Capote talks about the early life of each, and while Dick’s home life was not especially troublesome, Perry’s was. Neither man had the advantages that the Clutter children would have had, and Capote does make a point of stating that Dick had an issue with anyone he perceived to be better off than he was. Perry maintained that even if Dick had $100 on him, he would still steal a pack of gum. And even with Perry’s difficult upbringing, his desire to see his sister again just to hurt her, and his almost complete lack of emotion concerning the crimes makes him hard to be close to, even though the reader feels like they are forced to be.

There are many testimonies given from various people of the community concerning what they saw, what they thought, what they heard, etc. Holcomb was small enough and the Clutters were well known enough that everyone had something to say. The book touches on a feeling of insecurity and general fear as the majority of the Holcomb community believes that the guilty party are someone they all know from inside the town. A deep paranoia sets in as everyone starts to look at their neighbors in suspicion. Before this, Holcomb was the type of town where people left their doors unlocked, and Mr. Clutter was the type of man who would not hire anyone if he knew that they drank alcohol in any amount. Capote says it best when he states that before this even most of America was not even aware Holcomb existed, and that is was very easy to drive right by it on the way to somewhere else.


On November 16, 1959, The New York Times published an article on the murders that caught Capote’s interest and caused him to fly to Kansas to investigate with his childhood friend Harper Lee (of To Kill A Mockingbird Fame). All in all it would take Capote six years to write the novel as he started right after the crimes occurred and waited until the accused were executed by hanging to finish and publish it. It was published as part of a four-part serial in The New Yorker and was an immediate hit. Random House published it in books form in January 1966.

Capote also includes a brief legal history concerning the state of Kansas and the death penalty. The governor that had just been defeated in re-election was rigidly opposed to the death penalty (which is the main reason he was not re-elected) while the new governor was not. Had Dick and Perry’s trial been concluded under the old governor, they may have received life with parole, as life without parole did not exist as an option in Kansas at the time. Also, the insanity defense plays a crucial role in the ruling since Kansas operated under the belief that even if Dick and/or Perry were mentally unstable, because they know right from wrong, they cannot receive the sentence of being placed in an institution for the mentally insane.

Critics have challenged the authenticity of the book saying that Capote added scenes that never occurred and changed dialogue as well as facts to suit his story. Other simply contest that its popularity is due to the promise of gory details and the fact that the novel withholds them to the very end.

This is definitely a book worth reading either for academics or for fun. Of course, we read these things because we want answers and we want to understand, but ultimately, I personally do not think any amount of explanation will help me to understand what makes someone take the life of an entire family that has done no wrong to the killers and did not seem to provoke them in any way.

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