“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” (4.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
This edition published by Penguin Modern Classics, 3rd February 2000. Originally published in 1965.
I read the paperback edition which is 336 pages.
Deemed as the first ‘non-fiction novel,’ In Cold Blood is a meticulous documentary account of the murder of a family of four at their isolated Kansas farmhouse in 1959. With seemingly no motive, the brutal crime gained press attention, with the perpetrators eventually detained six weeks after the event. Writer Truman Capote travelled to Kansas, to the small town of Holcombe immediately after the slayings, later extensively interviewing the killers- Perry Smith and Dick Hickock once they were in custody. This is a book six years in the making- a succinct reconstruction of the before, during and after of a multiple murder that shocked an entire community- and later the world.
In Cold Blood successfully takes the reader back to an America of decades ago, invoking a small-town USA in which people didn’t even lock their doors, believing that they were safe and that ‘this kind of thing’ just couldn’t happen to them. Crime was something that happened in big cities, not communities where everyone knew their neighbour and one another’s business.
Sadly, it can-and did- happen and unfortunately that still continues to be the case today. After reading so many true-crime novels, I did perhaps consider if this book would even have any kind of impact on me at all, suspecting that I would perhaps be ‘de-sensitised’ to such events. Needless to say, this wasn’t the case; if anything this book made me contemplate just the kind of waves that such a murder would have made, back in the 1950’s. It is a really important glimpse into the past- and not only that, is a considered look at the American justice system.
I must confess that I’ve had this book sat on my shelves for a while, too. I picked it up about a year ago and just couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters back then- I just wasn’t in the mood for it, I suppose. When I picked it up towards the end of last week though, something clicked and I found myself pulled into the events immediately- as a consequence reading it on and off all weekend, gripped by its painstakingly concise reportage-style prose and impeccable level of detail.
The reader is invited to get to know the Clutter family in depth, leading up to the quadruple murder. There’s father Herb, a god-fearing, responsible family man. He’s a businessman who believes in doing the right thing. His wife, Bonnie, is somewhat fragile and rarely seen, though when she has her ‘good days’ Herb and the rest of the family are reminded of the woman she once was. Also living at home are daughter Nancy, just shy of her seventeenth birthday, and young son Kenyon. Whilst the groundwork is being laid and introductions are being made to these people, the reader already knows that they are going to die, which makes their actions on their last days all the more poignant.
Aside from the slick writing style, I think one of the aspects of this book that had the most impact on me, personally was the fact that the author does not immediately discuss the murders themselves in any great detail once they have been committed, or even consider the killers’ motives. Is there ever a “motive” for such a despicable crime, after all?
The narrative is well-considered. Capote instead carefully delves into the more mundane events leading up to the brutal slayings and then instead of discussing the why’s and the where’s, examines the killers’ trying to cross the border into Mexico whilst the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) and the people of Holcombe try and get their heads around the Clutter’s murders. This too gives the reader time to think about why anyone would want to hurt the Clutter’s, a seemingly ordinary, prosperous, all-American family. Unlike the police or the people of Holcombe, we know who has committed the act and even have a voyeuristic slant into the proceedings; we just need to pull all of the threads together.
The events themselves could have perhaps been easily over-sensationalised, though thankfully this is never the case. The book merely sticks to the cold, hard facts, interspersed with admittedly banal details about the family themselves, their relationships and the idyllic surroundings of River Valley Farm; the small homestead is such a rural, domestic place that it makes what happens there so difficult to believe. Even one of the murderers, Perry Smith, when he later recounts what actually happened, never veers into the melodramatic. The more shocking details are essentially in how little he and Hickock took from the Clutter household- approximately forty dollars, a pair of binoculars and a radio. The fact that four people’s lives were ended for so little is both chilling and heartbreaking and the killers also appear completely devoid of any remorse.
I think the aspects that tugged on my heartstrings the most though, are when we see excerpts from young Nancy Clutter’s diary and the impact that her death had on her school friends and boyfriend- initially a suspect of the crime. Nancy and her brother, Kenyon, never had the chance to ‘be’ and see all of their potential realised- two young lives cut short so tragically.
When it all comes down to it, the fact that four people lost their lives for a paltry $40 dollars is absolutely abhorrent. Capote perfectly conveys the shock, the fear and the chilling details of this crime in every seemingly insignificant detail, a crime that happened in a small Kansas town and were it not for him writing this book, probably would not have registered on a lot of people’s radar. I never once sympathised with either killer though Capote certainly does his best to offer glimpses into their damaged childhoods, seemingly trying to offer some kind of insight into them psychologically. That aside, it isn’t really clear where his own judgement sits or his opinions on capital punishment either, his journalistic style actually seems pretty balanced. When two such damaged people’s paths cross such as Smith’s and Hickock’s, then perhaps this is where we have the frightening catalyst to spark such an event like the Clutter murders and I think that was one of the main factors he was trying to demonstrate.
Capote does have a tendency to go slightly off-tangent though. Whilst I found some of the extra information incorporated into the text both interesting and informative (statements from both Smith and Hickock for example, and letters from their family and friends), he also includes some information which I’m not sure had much of a purpose as it had no baring on the story, nor the Clutters’ murder. He includes information about both Smith and Hickock engaging with other prisoners on death row, for example- and their conversations, which becomes slightly tedious towards the end of the text.
What I did take away from this book most of all however, was an admiration for Capote’s painstaking research and his ability to give a ‘voice’ to every single person caught up in the incident- be it victim or perpetrator, which was no easy task. I am very, very glad I finally got around to reading this novel and would recommend this haunting book to any reader with an interest in true crime.