In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Published in 1965.
Synopsis: Capote’s famous work is considered a pioneer in the literary form of ‘non-fiction novel.’ Based on the true account of the multiple murders of the Clutter family on their farm in rural Kansas, the story is divided into four parts. Beginning with the day the four Clutters were killed, Capote alternates between the actions of the Clutter family and the premeditations of their two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In subsequent sections, the story goes into the time elapsed between the murders, the investigators solving the case, the capture of the two criminals, the trial and the build up to their ultimate fate. Meanwhile, the novel serves as a sort-of biography to the two killers as well.
About the Author: Master of the non-fiction novel, in his lifetime Capote published several other works including Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). In Cold Blood, his most famous work, was originally published as a four-part series in The New Yorker in 1965, and then appeared in book formed in 1966. A journalist at heart, Capote spent considerable time in Kansas conducting research for this novel, including intimate interviews with both Smith and Hickock. A witness to their executions, friends of Capote said he never fully got over it. The author died in 1984 at the age of 59, finally succumbing to his alcoholism and drug abuse.
My Initial Reactions:
I don’t know if it was because I first read the introduction, or because the plot of the book is already ingrained in our cultural knowledge, but I wasn’t bothered by the fact that I already knew who the killers were and their ultimate fate prior to beginning the book. In a way, it reminded me of The Lovely Bones, in which the killer’s identity is revealed in the first chapter, but you find yourself reading in anticipation of suspense, wondering if he will ever get caught or kill again. With the case of In Cold Blood, I found myself wondering early on what the killers’ motives were and how the case would finally be solved and the killers caught.
In beginning the fourth section of the book ‘The Corner,’ I already knew the book would end with the executions of Hickock and Smith approximately 5 years after their capture because I had cheated and read their Wikipedia pages. However, reading that section led me to think more deeply about other questions involving the United States’ judicial system. For example, Hickock and Smith originally met in prison while they were serving short-term sentences for petty crimes. I wondered, given what the two criminals did after they were parolled: does the U.S. prison system rehabilitate criminals or make criminals more vicious?
Also, I have long been an opponent to capital punishment for multiple reasons, but this book made me ponder my arguments more closely. Once a killer, is the person always going to be a killer, or is there the possibility of rehabilitation? Hickock and Smith were undoubtedly known to be guilty from the time of their capture, yet there was a lengthy appeals process after their initial trial to appeal the form of punishment they were granted. I found KBI Agent Dewey’s views on the execution interesting (page 407):
The preceding execution had not disturbed him, he had never had much use for Hickock, who seemed to him “a small-time chiseler who got out of his depth, empty and worthless.” But Smith, though he was the true murderer, aroused another response, for Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded, that the detective could not disregard. He remembered his first meeting with Perry in the interrogation room at Police Headquarters in Las Vegas – the dwarfish boy-man seated in the metal chair, his small booted feet not quite brushing the floor. And when Dewey now opened his eyes, that is what he saw: the same childish feet, tilted, dangling.
This brings me to my final comment, that in reading the story I actually liked Perry Smith. Maybe it was that I felt sorry for him, because he came from a broken family where half of his siblings had committed suicide. Maybe it was the embarrassment I felt for him being ashamed to show his legs in public after his motorcycle accident. Capote also shows the other side of Perry — the man who kept a squirrel as a pet in the Finney County Jail and taught him tricks; the man who carefully pondered the menu for his reunion with an old military friend who came as a character witness for his trial; the man whose last words were “I apologize.” I did not feel this remorse with Hickock, who apparently had quite a pleasant upbringing and I could not understand his madness.
So what did you think of the book? Do you totally disagree with what I have to say? Did you read the book many years ago in high school or college and still remember something striking about it? Please share your comments below.
Next Up: Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel, the new release from Chilean author Isabel Allende. Discussion begins October 7th.