In Cold Blood

Capote at River Valley Farm

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!

21 thoughts on “In Cold Blood

  1. It does sound interesting and not gruesome. What I find fascinating is the fact that this was the first time someone wrote this kind of investigative journalism, it’s a groundbreaking work.
    ‘Of all the people in the world,’ a detective told Capote at the time, ‘the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.’ That’s a sentence that will stay on my mind. It seems as if the sheriff at that time thought that murder cannot be random. This crime must have shaken him and turned his world view upside down.
    In the movie Capote develops an obsession with one of them and the movie focusses a lot on that relationship. It seems as if this wasn’t in the center of the book.
    I didn’t want to read it because I thought it would be to oppressing. Funny enough what I found oppressing in the movie was the bleak landscape, the beginning that shows the house in its isolation.

  2. It is the randomness of that heinous act which is so frightening and chills me to the bone. I can certainly imagine how difficult it could be to immerse yourself in this crime so that you could write about it.

    I’m half-terrified just reading your review of the book!

  3. “I have no difficulty turning out the light at night to sleep.”… that certainly sounds like a good bedtime read. 😉 Litlove, what you’ve written here is detailed and analytical. So instead of merely documenting a crime story, seems like Capote has raised some deep questions about human nature, the origin of evil, the making of the criminal mind, and the social causes of deviant behaviour. A study from various angles. But what’s disturbing is your noting the randomness of it all. “You are as likely to win the lottery as you are to be murdered in your bed”… now that’s unsettling, to say the least.

  4. I can imagine that the writing of this book haunted Capote for the rest of his life. To be so close to the perpetrators as he was, in order to write the book, had to touch him in some way and leave a mark on him. This book haunted me after I read it. I had to sleep with my light on for a several nights after I had finished the book.

  5. It’s an impressive book, all right, especially in how Capote refuses to treat any of the people, especially Smith and Hickock, as caricatures. It would have been so much easier in so many ways to just focus on the Clutters and the investigation and not spend all those hours trying to understand the murderers and share their stories, but their stories are what gives the book its power. It is too bad that the work affected Capote so terribly.

  6. I’m not reading this yet, because I don’t want to be affected by your review. I’ll be writing and posting mine tomorrow, and will let you know when it’s up. Right now, I will just say: the book terrified me in a way I didn’t expect to be terrified, and I was riveted.

  7. As I suspected you might, Litlove, you confirm my suspicion with this post that a lot of very thought-provoking material went right over my head when I read this as a youngster. Will have to revisit in the future, now that I’ve honed my reading and analytical skills a bit. I like that you highlight the “carefully orchestrated randomness” at play here, and the fact that so many seemingly unrelated pieces had to fall into place before the Clutter murders could have taken place.

  8. I read In Cold Blood sometime last year, and I still recall the terror that I felt when thinking about the sheer randomness of the murders. It was horrifying to think that a family could be killed, just like that. At the same time, it was distressing to find that I could see everything from the points of view of the murderers themselves. I think that’s Capote’s great achievement: he succeeds in blurring our clear demarcations of good and evil, and our belief that good and bad things always happen for a reason. In some ways, for me at least, it challenges all the traditional notions of conduct and the ideas of reward and punishment discussed in religious texts. I mean, what is the point of being good if something this horrible can happen anyway?

  9. Oh, bravo! What a great review. I’d meant to comment on how the two characters seemed perfectly to represent nature (Hickock) v. nurture (Smith). I couldn’t help thinking that Hickock was just a hopeless case, whereas maybe Smith would have been okay if only someone, somewhere along the line had saved him from the horrors of his childhood. I’d also meant to address the randomness of the capture of the murderers in comparison to the randomness of the crime. As you’ll see, though (the post is up), I wrote plenty as it is. Funny, I didn’t feel the sort of sympathy for Smith that you and others note. As you’ll read in my post, I felt Capote stayed detached enough that it never happened for me.

  10. Great post Litlove. I read In Cold Blood a few years ago. What stays in my mind is how Capote is absent from the book. I read it knowing how closely involved he was and his years of research but in writing it, he was able to maintain such a distance. I don’t know why, but that surprised me.

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  12. Caroline – you’re right – all I knew about this book before reading it was Capote’s fascination with Perry Smith. You could never tell from reading it – Capote merges into the story completely and offers about as objective a viewpoint on events as it is possible to have. I didn’t find it particularly gruesome; I just found it really interesting. Not having seen the movies, I didn’t have a particular view of the situation, so it was all internal for me, inside people’s heads, inside the community, inside the story. I wonder how different it would feel as a book if I had pictures in my head?

    Becca – you are such a gentle soul! I am very intrigued by the idea of randomness itself being frightening. I suppose I think that if there’s no reason why bad things shouldn’t happen, there’s no reason why they should, either. I’m okay for myself, much more frightened generally for my son (out of my control, I guess, which is another can of worms!!).

    Arti – you’re spot on, in that I found the book really worked for me in the way it did turn my attention to those big underlying themes. The very absence of authorial judgement makes it very easy to focus on those big questions without having handy answers – something I really like. I’m okay with the randomness, given that I am completely convinced I would never win the lottery! I also think that bad stuff happens and we can’t do anything much about it, but someone else’s story needn’t necessarily be mine – well, in all probability won’t be mine. Not that I ever contemplate disaster and suffering with equanimity of course! If only I could!

    Kathleen – oh poor thing! But you’re quite right; it must have been a tremendous struggle to write something so very close to the brink of madness and evil. Poor old Capote, too. I do think it affected him badly.

    Teresa – I read an interesting newspaper article online about the Clutter’s community 50 years after the book was published. They don’t like the book and bear it a grudge, partly because it ruined the anonymity of their town, and partly because there was a strong feeling at the time that more should have been said about the Clutters to honor them. I’m glad the book is the way it is – it’s a much more interesting and powerful book because it examines all sides of the story. (I completely agree with you there.)

    Lilian – Quite a lot of people seem to have found it disturbing. I think it depends on where you stand on randomness. I suppose I do accept the randomness of existence, mostly (wait to see me eat my words on that one) so it didn’t freak me.

    Emily – that’s it exactly. A lot of things had to happen for the murders to take place (so you could look at it differently: think how many don’t take place because of all the factors working against them). I quite understood your concern with the language as I was reading. There are parts which do seem clunky and I’m even more keen now to read Capote in novelist vein. But I found I could put the language to one side as there was so much to think about in terms of the story. And I am always keen to think about those abstract concerns and issues! 🙂

    p2c2u – I quite understand your questions, as I went through a phase of wondering about that myself when I was younger. But in the end I felt quite strongly that we don’t embrace virtue just in the hope of things going smoothly in our lives (because that never happens, and it’s just depressing to keep paying into a virtuous bank account that never gives dividends). Instead, if we do behave well it’s because that sort of behaviour is its own reward – having a clear conscience, nothing to reproach oneself with, compassion for ourselves and others, a life free of distressing complications, well the benefits of these are just self-evident. But that’s only my choice. I do know for sure, though, that life isn’t causal, and it’s bound to be frustrating if we want that sort of transaction at the centre of our existence. You’re quite right that Capote’s book does blur the boundaries of good and evil, particularly Perry Smith. Although, really he comes across as such a damaged individual you can really see how he could have been entirely different, given better chances.

    Emily – that’s a beautiful insight, to see Hickock as nature and Smith as nurture; I love it. The randomness of the capture was so intriguing; I felt like it was natural justice, but it seemed sort of wrong in a book that wasn’t suckered into any sort of pattern-making or causality unravelling. But oh my goodness, how I wished that Smith had had just one influence in his life at a time when it could have made a difference! I wanted to do prison work for a while but Mister Litlove talked me out of it, convinced I think that if he ever strayed into dark alleyways, someone would tap him on the shoulder and growl that he hadn’t been treating me right and had to pay. I don’t know about that! I loved your review, and I’m so pleased we read this book. It’s one that will stay with me.

    Ruthiella – oh I think you’re quite right. Capote is incredibly and surprisingly absent. You’d think, after spending so long with the townsfolk and the criminals, he’d end up having some sort of strong reaction one way or another. And yet he just completely disappears. I think that’s brilliant because it allows the reader to do so much deep questioning. Just brilliant.

  13. The book sounds really great! I love the idea of a book that explores the criminal mind, and I like the conclusion that there really isn’t a lesson to be learned from the story. That strikes me as chilling, but also true.

  14. Very true, litlove. It’s best to try and keep our conscience clear, because that is really what will help us sleep at night. Murders are just as random as any other thing in life. The fact that In True Blood raised all these questions in our minds, makes it pretty clear what an impactful book it is and why it deserves its popularlity.

  15. Great review LL! My reading of this has become blurred with the excellent movie in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Capote. Sounds like In Cold Blood deserves all the praise it gets because of the brilliant way in which he manages to get right inside Perry’s mind and yet maintains a neutral stance. That kind of relentless objectivity (so central to excellent investigative journalism) comes at a price though. It’s interesting to me that Capote’s health suffered so much during the writing of this book. I thought the movie did an excellent
    job of showing the complex sides of Capote that don’t come out in the book (since he keeps himself absent from the action).

  16. I’m still reading! I’ll save your post and Emily’s for when I finish–not that I don’t already know how things turn out, but just to keep my mind clear. I have to say, however, that I am finding this somewhat disturbing to read and I don’t know why. I read more than my share of crime novels and just watching the daily news is enough to think I am not shockable anymore, but I find often will read a bit and then set the book down in favor of something else. I think what is bothering me is the total and complete lack of remorse that Perry and Dick have for their behavior. The book reads like good fiction, the page turning sort, but that almost makes it worse as you know these people were real–it’s worse than fiction which is over the top and attempts to shock–Capote is so matter of fact and there is a simplicity to his storytelling–it makes for chilling reading. I’ll finish, though, it may be a week or so more….I’m glad I’m reading this, though. And glad I am reading it in the middle of summer, too.

  17. Dorothy – I am such a sucker for the books that don’t draw conclusions. I think it’s after all these years of academic analysis – sometimes it feels great just to let it all be without having to parse every sentence!

    p2c2u – absolutely. I love books that really raise questions; they are so satisfying to me, in a way that books with all the answers aren’t. And good luck with that conscience – I’m still working on mine. 😉

    Pete – I’m not much of a movie person, but I am interested in the Capote movies because I’d really like to see Capote at work on the investigation. He is so cleverly absent from the narrative, that I’m even more curious to see the extent of his involvement. Isn’t it curious that hiding his subjectivity should be so costly – there must be all sorts of intriguing psychoanalytic implications in that.

    Danielle – take your time! There’s no rush! I know what you mean about remorse – that comes across particularly with Dick Hickock and I found him far and away the most disturbing character in the book. It IS a really chilling and disturbing read, and I think oddly enough, I was saved a bit by living in a small village in England, not in the middle of prairie land! I don’t have such an imaginative link to it, if you see what I mean.

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