7.20.2017

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood





As a fan of true crime, I don't know what took me so long to read this. Meghan actually read it years before me and I can remember perfectly watching Capote together in broad daylight in my apartment on an afternoon with beautiful weather (this is typical of us). I will say, I built this book up so much in my head and then didn't truly love it as much as Meghan did. I felt it was hard to get into and then hard to stay engaged.

In 1959 in Kansas four members of the Clutter family that still lived at home (father, mother, daughter, son) were all murdered in their home. A recently released prisoner (Dick Hickock) heard from a previous cell-mate that the Clutter family was quite wealthy. Hickock recruited a partner (Perry Smith) and they went to rob the Clutter family. Things took a turn for the worse and the family was murdered, the robbers only ended up find ~$50 dollars to steal. Hickock and Smith were both found guilty and given the death penalty. It's an incredibly sad story. In Cold Blood is the most perfect and chilling title for a book written about this case.

The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightening. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered.... [lawyer] asks Smith, 'Added up, how much money did you get from the Clutters?'

'Between forty and fifty dollars.'"

Some fun facts about this book:
  • Truman Capote's other best-known work is Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958)
  • Capote decided to write the book after reading a 300 word article about the murders in the New York Times 
  • Capote and Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) went to Kansas after the murders to interview residents, etc. as research for this book, published in 1966
  • Critics have called In Cold Blood the "original non-fiction novel"
  • It's the second most popular true crime novel after Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter (1974) --> a book I immediately put on my wish list after learning this fact
  • Some critics say Capote made up a lot of the stuff in the book
The book itself develops three separate narratives. This is one of the main reasons I found it hard to get into. Once you started getting into the characters and storyline in one narrative, Capote switched. Some people may really like this but I didn't. 

1. The Clutter Family
The first narrative is of the family who gets murdered. You learn about how the wife has been mentally ill, and they talk a lot about the daughter's high school relationship. I think they build up the relationship a lot because the boyfriend is initially considered a suspect. Obviously, the family gets murdered quite early on so this narrative doesn't carry on for too long. I did appreciate the empathy built throughout this narrative. You begin to 'get to know' them and it makes it worse when they're murdered for absolutely no reason.

This quote is from Perry Smith's testimony as to what happened that night and it's really heartbreaking... I can't imagine a father and husband trying to handle a situation where he knows his family is likely going to die...

'I don't know why you boys want to do this. I've never done you any harm. I never saw you before.' 

That's when Dick told [Mr. Clutter], 'Shut up! When we want you to talk, we'll tell you.' 

Wasn't anybody in the upstairs hall, and the doors were shut. Mr. Clutter pointed out the rooms where the boy and girl were supposed to be sleeping, then opened his wife's door. He lighted a lamp beside the bed and told her, 'It's all right, sweetheart. Don't be afraid. These men, they just want some money.'... The minute she opened her eyes, she started to cry... he was holding her hand, patting it. He said, 'Now, don't cry, honey. It's nothing to be afraid of..'"

2. Detective Dewey and the town of Holcomb

Capote (left), Dewey, and Dewey's wife, Marie
This narrative follows the main police officer investigating the murders, and some of the townspeople as they react to the crime in their town. This story line reminded me a lot of Fargo, (the TV series and the movie both) which I love. It's always interesting to see major crimes occur in towns where literally nothing bad happens. All of the sudden a small time sheriff who usually gives out speeding tickets is trying to catch cold-blooded killers. I like to imagine they go to the washroom and puke their guts out because they never in their life imagined they'd have to do something like this.

'Do you know what's happening to you, Al? Do you realize you never talk about anything else?' 

'Well,' Dewey had replied, "that's all I think about. And there's the chance that just while talking the thing over, I'll hit on something I haven't thought of before. Some new angle. Or maybe you will. Damn it, Cliff, what do you suppose my life will be if this thing stays in the Open File? Years from now I'll still be running down tips, and every time there's a murder, a case anywhere in the country even remotely similar, I'll have to horn right in, check, see if there could be any possible connection. But it isn't only that. The real thing is I've come to feel I know Herb and the family better than they ever knew themselves. I'm haunted by them. I guess I always will be. Until I know what happened.'"

3. The Murderers

This last narrative follows Hitchcock and Smith and is for sure the most elaborate one. Capote weaves their childhoods and family situations into their reflections as they drive to Vegas together after the murders. I found this plot the most interesting because you can see how individually they begin to process the murders mentally (even thinking of killing each other), however, this plot also has to be completely fictional. Obviously, Capote wasn't in the car with them as they drove out of Kansas to know what they felt and what they discussed... this is where the non-fiction aspect of the book sort of bleeds into fiction and its hard to be conscious of it while you're reading. I had to actually text Meghan and ask her if this was really non-fiction or if I was going insane... I also began to empathize with Smith during this narrative which is ridiculous.

'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.'" - Perry Smith (talking to a friend visiting him in jail)

The court case, as its documented, is actually incredibly interesting and I can see anyone with a law background being particularly fascinated with this trial. They had an all male and local jury, for one. As well, the judge also clearly advocates for the death penalty before the jury moves to decision which I'm pretty sure is 1000% not allowed today. Capote also goes into a lot of detail about the death penalty in the context of this case and the history and statistics of its use. I was really intrigued about how detailed Capote was regarding the death penalty and looked up whether he'd expressed a public opinion for or against it. I found this interview from 1968 with William Buckley, that was republished on Open Culture in 2012:

Buckley opens by asking whether 'systematic execution of killers over the preceding generation might have stayed the hand of the murderers of the Cutter family.' 

Capote replies that 'capital punishment — which I'm opposed to, but for quite different reasons than are usually advanced — would in itself be a singularly effective deterrent, if it were, in fact, systematically applied. But because public sentiment is very much opposed to it and the courts have allowed this endless policy of appeal — to such a degree that a person can be eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen years under a sentence of capital punishment — it becomes, in effect, an extreme, unusual, and cruel punishment. If people really were sentenced to be executed and were within a reasonable period of time, the professional murderer knew the absolute, positive end of their actions would be their own death, I think it would certainly give them second thoughts.'"

After reading this interview, the detail with which Capote wrote about Hickock and Smith's time on death row makes a lot more sense. They were there for an incredibly long time with several other prisoners who were also sentenced to capital punishment, and Capote provides a lot of details about those cases as well.

'- and the punishment is death'; each time he came to the sentence, [the judge] enunciated it with a dark-toned hollowness that seemed to echo the train's mournful, now fading call. Then he dismissed the jury... and the condemned men were led away... 

...at the door [after learning their sentences], Smith said to Hickock, 'No chicken-hearted jurors, they!' They both laughed loudly, and a cameraman photographed them."

As much as I love true crime, I had a really hard time reading this because of the multi-narratives and the blending of fact and fiction. I can completely understand why its such a famous book, and I think it's insanely cool that it helped build the foundation of the non-fiction genre, but I just may not be advanced enough a reader for it. The content itself I did find insanely interesting and I have been googling articles and bits of information on tangents from this book basically non-stop since reading it.


If you're interested in true crime, and have a really good attention span, this may be a fantastic read for you. If you're easily confused and need to be captivated early on, you may have a similar experience to mine. 


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