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.
On the outskirts of Kansas is an area called Holcomb, a sleepy town “other Kansans call ‘out there’”, where an unlocked front door is customary and residents consider each other friends rather than neighbors. In mid-November of 1959, members of the particularly well-liked Clutter family; husband and wife Herbert and Bonnie, and teenaged siblings Nancy and Kenyon, have not shown up to church. A highly abnormal occurrence for the devout Methodist family. When two friends of young Nancy visit the River Valley Farm to find out what has happened they find the family car is still parked in the garage. The house is too quiet, on the kitchen floor is Nancy’s overturned purse. At the top of the stairs is the door to Nancy’s room, when her friends open it they find her in bed with the back of her skull ripped through by a bullet. Walking through subsequent rooms, the police quickly discover that the entire Clutter family has been massacred; each killed by a shotgun held inches from their faces.
In Cold Blood was first published in 1966, seven years after the murder of the Clutter family, and although there have been some before it, it is considered the first non-fiction novel. Non-fiction novels depict real people and events while utilizing artistic license to weave facts with fiction. Capote’s use of fictitious conversations and storytelling techniques typically seen in fiction turn this novel into a unique reading experience with palpable, sympathetic characters (good and bad), tension, and exquisite prose from an unbiased narrator. A pillar of the true crime genre, until this day In Cold Blood has only been outsold by one novel, Helter Skelter – Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book about the Manson murders.
Capote capitalizes on tension by splitting the novel into four parts: The Last to See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and The Corner. Although Holcomb residents are sure the crime has been committed by one of their own, the reader knows the true criminals to be Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two recently released convicts with numerous prior arrests. The pair have similarly disturbing childhoods and mentality of being jilted by the world, but vastly differing personalities that probably would not have coincided had it not been for the prison walls they were both behind. Hickock is a tall, harsh, smooth talking leader with a skewed face, while half-Indian Smith is stocky, emotional, creative, and superstitious. Capote’s ability to remain mostly unbiased (during interviews with Smith and Hickock it is clear he sees Smith as the more sensitive of the two and portrays him as such) is what drives the novel’s authoritative voice. His impartial writing style ensures that all sides of the story are told, which is why he succeeds in turning seemingly cold blooded murderers into sympathetic characters.
Going into the story readers know the Clutter family has been killed in their rural home. We already know the murderers are caught, tried, and hanged as a result. What the reader learns from this book is why, the fine details behind murder, and through six years of writing and 8000 pages of research, Capote does a wonderful job of delivering. As a result of dubious research, interviews with people who knew both Clutter family and their murderers, Capote writes with certainty and authority, delivering a story that reads like a beautifully written police report. Although readers go in with relative knowledge of the murders, Capote instills even more mystery with details peppered throughout the story, for example, the circumstances that brought the deadly pair to the Clutter household.
As a boy he’d [Hickock] so envied the son of a neighbor who had gone to the Gulf Coast on holiday and returned with a box of shells-so hated him- that he’d stolen the shells and one by one crushed them with a hammer. Envy was constantly with him; the Enemy was anyone who was someone he wanted to be or who had anything he wanted to have.
There are multiple narratives throughout the book connecting accounts of neighboring families and workers that cared for the Clutter farm up until the day of the murders, dovetailed with Smith and Hickock’s travels through Mexico after the murders. While inhabitants of Holcomb and detectives believe the crimes to be perpetrated by calculated crooks, the reader knows Hickock and Smith to be messy and stuck in a cycle of poor choices – a far cry from whom most are expecting. Capote pays special attention to Hickock and Smith’s complex love-hate relationship during and after the murders, and the dependency and strain that weighs heavily on them when funds dwindle and a paper trail of bad checks piles up behind them.
Towards the end of the book a character poses the question; “How can a person as sane as this man seems to be commit an act as crazy as the one he was convicted of?” Studying the psychology and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith as well as others convicted of crimes as heinous as the one they committed, Capote references Dr Joseph Satten’s Murder Without Apparent Motive – A Study in Personality Disorganization and draws the attention of the novel to the trial itself. Up until this point it is easy to get lost in Capote’s writing style and forget the events in the book are real, the trial brings everything back to reality. This moment is where the story soars, leaving the reader feeling emotional and conflicted about the slaying of the Clutter family and all that comes undone following it; Holcomb, the minds of those residing there, and the lives of Hickock and Smith.
Have you read In Cold Blood? What did you think of it? Is it on your TBR list? Do you enjoy reading about sympathetic bad characters? Let me know in the comments!
*Book two out of 10 Books of Summer