Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood dramatises one significant battle in the great war between good and evil. On the side of righteousness we have the Clutter family of the small hamlet of Holcolm, lost in the midst of the vast farming plains of Kansas. The Clutters represented a pure kind of American respectability, an honest, hard-working family who loved one another and held a prominent place in the heart of their community. ‘Of all the people in the world,’ a detective told Capote at the time, ‘the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.’ Only Mrs Clutter, the neurotic Bonnie, provided her own small tremor in the midst of all this serene goodness, a gentle hint that one could be well off and settled and accomplished and yet not guaranteed happiness. On the side of evil, magnifying that little thread of instability in Bonnie Clutter to terrifying proportions, were Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, two ex-cons who had teamed up after Dick had received a tip-off in prison about the Clutters and their wealth. They planned a burglary that would leave no witnesses. They left the Clutter household dead, but with a mere $40 and a transistor radio. The safe supposedly containing £10,000 had never existed, except as a fantasy and a lure.
There is so much in this book that is genuinely frightening, even beyond the unsuspecting innocence of the family. As Truman Capote painstakingly recreates the events of that night, there are numerous points when they could have turned back or turned away, left the Clutters alive if scared out of their wits, given up sensibly when the point of the burglary proved illusory. Why did the Clutters have to die? In the end it’s almost impossible to say because the murders were so oddly motivated; they happened because it was the only part of the plan that could be accomplished, they happened through frustration and fear, and out of pride and bravado as it played out between the dysfunctionally attached criminals, Smith and Hickock. And it happened because someone always has to pay for another’s pain. When asked why he had killed the family, Perry Smith replied: ‘I was sore at Dick. The tough brass boy. But it wasn’t Dick. Or the fear of being identified. I was willing to take that gamble. And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.’
As Truman Capote’s narrative extends beyond the night of the crime, into the investigation and then the capture and trial of Smith and Hickock, it’s the warped personalities of the criminals that begin to dominate. Capote does an extraordinary job of evoking sympathy for Perry Smith while saying nothing that in any way expresses sympathy for him. But Smith is the most comprehensible of the partnership. His was a terrible childhood, his parents’ early divorce leaving him uprooted and poor in the so-called care of a mother who was an alcoholic. Turning early to petty crime, Perry ended up in a series of juvenile reform homes that sound far worse than any adult prison. In one, run by nuns, his persistent bed-wetting resulted in nightly immersion in a tub of cold water, held under until he nearly drowned. He received almost no education, but like many criminals, his intelligence was higher than average and he deeply resented his lack of opportunities. There was clearly a damaged streak running through his family – out of the four siblings, one sister committed suicide, one brother killed his wife and then himself, and Perry was in and out of jail. The psychiatrist’s report on him that was never submitted as evidence at the trial describes him as a paranoid personality, suspicious and mistrustful towards others, believing them to be laughing at him, overly sensitive to criticism, often reading it into innocent remarks, longing for stable love and affection but convinced he will always be betrayed. The strange conflicts in his personality manifested themselves in the way he carefully placed pillows beneath the head of the Clutters’ youngest son before shooting him through it.
Dick Hickock, however, is another problem altogether. Thief, conman and fraudster, the impetus for the Clutter burglary, the driving force of the partnership, and a man with a penchant for young girls, Hickock came from a good, loving family who brought him up in secure circumstances. He did well at school, had a series of reasonable jobs, but when he needed more money to pay for the three children he had by his teenage wife, he turned to crime. It seems that he was unable to tolerate frustration or envy the way most people do, and he possessed no sense of moral responsibility. Even though he knew a thing was wrong, he went ahead regardless. For me, Hickock was the truly terrifying element of the crime, as there is no apparent reason at all for the demonic elements of his character. He had suffered a severe head injury in an accident, and claimed that he had periods of blackout and migraines subsequently that enhanced his antisocial tendencies, although the doctor who assessed them both could not establish any brain damage and could only say with some certainty that he displayed the signs of a personality disorder. Right up until the end, Hickock proudly proclaimed himself ‘a normal’ and believed that he was the victim of injustice, given he had never killed any of the Clutters. Quite what happened on that night remains unclear; Perry Smith changed his statement to say he had committed all the murders because he thought that Hickock’s mother was a good, kind woman who didn’t deserve to spend the rest of her life thinking that her son had been responsible for atrocities. It was clear, however, that Hickock’s mother did suffer terribly for her son’s crimes, despite this gesture.
In Cold Blood is deservedly a classic for the way it takes the reader so deeply into the black heart of criminal behaviour, so unflinchingly into the ease with which lives turn to the bad and horrific consequences result. Small wonder that Capote suffered so in the writing of it. Its meticulously detailed approach from a neutral standpoint makes for a brilliant evocation of the complex personalities involved, as well as the arduous hard work undertaken by the investigators. This was a crime that could so easily have gone unsolved; that a sheer fluke delivered the perpetrators into the hands of the law says…what, I wonder, about natural justice? I’d like it to say something, but in all fairness Capote’s narrative insists with admirable honesty that bad things happen and good things happen and we rarely understand why. I thought this would be a hard book to read, but in fact I was simply engrossed by the action as it unfolded, and I have no difficulty turning out the light at night to sleep. What In Cold Blood really shows, to my mind at least, is the carefully orchestrated randomness of crime; things come together and things fall apart, and there is nothing one can do other than submit to fate. You are as likely to win the lottery as you are to be murdered in your bed, and in the meantime, the far greater dangers lurk only inside your head. As Capote notes: ‘Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.’
If any other bloggers post on this book for the readalong, do let me know and I will link to your review.
Emily’s review – go read it, so interestingly different to mine!