It’s tempting to review this book as a fictional work and discuss characterizations and plot, but Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a rigorous recounting of actual events. It sat on my reading queue for years as I expected a dry list of dates, places, and events. This book is so much more—it has brilliant flow and pacing, the town is vividly described, and it’s deeply emotional. If the story weren’t true, In Cold Blood would be the greatest work of crime fiction I’ve read. Because it reads like a novel, with “characters” and suspense, I have my usual urge to avoid spoilers though I imagine the line is different with a heavily publicized, 53-year-old murder case. I suspect many young readers approach the book as I did with only a little foreknowledge. I knew only that four members of the Clutter family were killed and two men were hanged for their murder. Capote controls the pace of the story so expertly as to provide unbearable suspense and tension; to preserve this, I won’t include the details of the murderers’ capture.
On November 15, 1959, Herb and Bonnie Clutter were killed with their two children, Nancy and Kenyon. Capote, who fixated on these murders, interviewed everyone in the tiny town of Holcomb, Kansas. Pivotal moments in this book are not only narrated by Capote, they are detailed by the people who lived them. Entire transcripts of Dick and Perry’s interrogations are included and the provided correspondence gives them a clearly defined voice. Capote works these voices into his story the way a fiction writer would handle dialogue. It is this level of detail and characterization that makes the book feel fictional. The first 57 pages detail life in Holcomb with periodic cutaways to Dick and Perry traveling to the Clutters’ home. In retrospect, there is something gratuitous about these scenes: the Clutters are painted lovingly, coming alive through acts of generosity and kindness, while the reader watches the slow approach of their death.
It did not surprise me that the Clutters (primarily Herb and his daughter, Nancy) are built up as paragons of goodness; after all, providing sympathetic victims is Writing 101. What surprised me tremendously was how Capote also attempted to humanize their killers in the latter half of the book. Perhaps humanize is the wrong word. He seems to mourn what they might have been if their lives had gone differently. It’s a bizarre chain of events that ever brought them to Holcomb, and someone who despairs at the deaths of the Clutter family would understandably want to know how and where this chain could have been broken.
The back half of the book vacillates between pitiable anecdotes about Dick and Perry’s formative years, and scenes that paint them as hardened killers. Once, while evading capture, Dick and Perry hitchhiked and plotted to kill a man for his car. Perry explains what he was thinking at the time about Mr. Bell, their potential victim:
Mr. Bell explained that he had honeymooned in Cuernavaca. “We always wanted to go back. But it’s hard to move around when you’ve got five kids.” Perry, as he later recalled, thought, Five kids—well, too bad. (173)
As much pity as Capote can invoke by recounting their unfortunate youths, it is bone-chilling to hear Perry say he would have thought nothing of leaving five children fatherless for the sake of a car. While Capote resists a stinging critique of the court system and death penalty, he does raise questions about the fairness of Dick and Perry’s trial and their mental faculties. The juxtaposition of these two types of characterization (pitiable vs. cold-blooded) is unnerving and robs the reader of any sense of satisfaction at their deaths. If this case were presented in a made-for-TV move, the viewers would be encouraged to weep for the Clutters and cheer at the deaths of their killers. Capote denies the reader this easy answer. As a result, the book as a whole is extremely unsettling with no solace found anywhere.
A sincere attempt for peace is the following, by Bonnie Clutter’s brother, Mr. Howard Fox, when he speaks about the killer (he did not yet know there were two):
I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it very difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace. (107)
But Capote undercuts this in the next scene in which Perry asks Dick whether there must be something wrong with them that they murdered the Clutters; Dick replies that he’s “normal”. Throughout the book, the reader wants Mr. Fox to be right, that no one could carry on living just as before after doing such a thing, but Dick and Perry do not express traditional remorse.
While this book is the best I’ve read this year (note: it’s October), it is also the most stomach-churning and unsettling. The descriptions of the Clutter family as they were found by police are agonizing. Their bodies are described in a cold way, the way you’d find in a police report, but this coldness does not create distance from the reader. Instead, it is raw, heartbreaking, and terrifying.
Translation: Read it.