In Cold Blood by Truman Capone was an interesting story, but it was a hard to discern what the story was about while I was reading it. I think it's an excellent novel because the focal point shifts and transforms as you read it. It's like slowly zooming out of a very detailed painting in a way. Capote draws our attention—very slowly—towards the characters that are introduced as the villians. That's not to say they don't lose that label as the novel progresses. Capote wanted to tell the reader something very profound, and ultimately humanizing, about these murderers.
I also watched the film "Capote" last night, which looks at the story of the author himself during the writing of the novel. The film portrays the tumultous and complex relationship between Capote and one of the murderers, Perry Smith. This relationship is apparent when reading In Cold Blood; there is a poetic, artful tone used to describe Perry Smith, almost as if Capote focused harder when writing those parts. He wanted to capture Smith in the right light—a soft, gentle light that was meant to illuminate the details of an extremely isolated and lonely life. The underlying incongruity of Truman's relationship with Smith was that he needed Smith's life to end in order to finish his book.
Perry Smith and Eugene "Dick" Hickock committed a heinous crime that ended in the murder of a family of four, the Clutters, on the night of November 14th, 1959. Being a murder novel, In Cold Blood took a different approach to the genre in that the identity of the murderers are known almost immediately when beginning the novel. The only unanswered question for the majority of the book is their motivation, although you could say it's spoiled by the title of the book itself.
"In Cold Blood" is how Capote chose to describe the murder of the Clutter family because it captures an important and chilling detail of this story. Two men murdered a family of four, whom they had no prior relationship with, and ran off with about $40 after having done so. It doesn't seem possible that any sane, empathetic individual would be capable of carrying out such a cruel act with so little to gain. The apparent lack of financial motive is the most perplexing aspect of these killers. Even stranger, there are some intractable details found at the crime scene that seem to suggest some level of empathy given to the victims. Despite having been delivered point-blank shotgun wounds to the heads of each victim, the murderers decided to lay a pillow under the head of the son, tuck in Mrs. Clutter after already having tied her hands and feet, and leave Mr. Clutter on a boxspring mattress on the floor of the boiler room, which amounted to nothing more than an attempt to make him comfortable in his final hours. Such details suggest there were two different personalities among the killers that night, and ultimately two different reasons for why they were there.
Dick Hickock is the closer of the two to the standard portrait of a criminal: tattoos, insecurities, smooth talk, and what seemed to be a level of comfort and acceptance with the path he had gone down, even up until the moment of his hanging. Dick only truly cared about himself, and how to achieve personal gain from every situation. Once he and Perry were caught, he blamed all four murders on Perry almost immediately, showing no signs of loyalty to Perry whatsoever. Even once incarcerated, he still sought ways to escape prison. I believe he was able to convince Perry to help him with his plans because of his manipulative salesmen skills (something he used quite frequently throughout the book to convince businesses to accept worthless checks), but more so I think Perry was so lonely that he would've latched on to anyone who believed in him.
Loneliness is one of the common motifs throughout In Cold Blood. I believe the small, isolated town of Holcomb represents loneliness on a communal scale. This sort of macro-loneliness is exacerbated by the murder of the Clutters. Everyone in Holcomb instantly becomes suspicious of each other, and every member of the town has their own opinion on the culprit behind the murders. Families begin to confine themselves to their homes, keep their lights on at night, and stay vigilant due to the fear of another attack occurring. Lonely together, all of a sudden without a well-respected family in their community, Holcomb becomes a shell of what it once was.
Perry Smith's life was devoid of stability and structure. His mother, an native woman, was an abusive alcoholic. Perry had three siblings, all of whom stayed with his mother while he went to live with his father. He travelled with his father to Alaska, and spent most of his teenage years there. Shaped by the desolate land around him and sparse interactions with anyone other than his father, Perry never experienced the value of relationships with others. His eventual departure from Alaska was not on good terms. Essentially kicked out of his only home, Perry travelled by himself for many years, taking lodge and some temporary farm work at the home of Don Cullivan, one of the only people he might have considered a friend. During the trial of the Clutter murders, Don came to visit Perry in jail. The outcome of the trial at this point a formality, and it seemed more than likely that the jury would decide the men should hang. Capote, seeking to to capture the desolation that Perry felt, wrote during Don's visit:
"Yes. I like you." Sullivan's softly emphatic answer pleased and rather flustered Perry. He smiled and said, "Then you must be some kind of nut." Suddenly rising, he crossed the cell and picked up a broom. "I don't know why I should die amongst strangers. Let a bunch of prairiebillys stand around and watch me strangle. Shit. I ought to kill myself first." He lifted the broom and pressed the bristles against the light bulb that burned in the ceiling. "Just unscrew the bulb and smash it and cut my wrists. That's what I ought to do. While you're still here. Somebody who cares about me a little bit"
— Truman Capote, "In Cold Blood" pg. 489
It was at this point that I felt real sympathy towards Perry for the first time, which is remarkable given the brutal, unforgivable crime I know he committed. But I think this was the purpose of writing In Cold Blood for Capote—not necessarily to convince you to side with the killers, but to show that there was an important story there. Capote took what was a supposedly one dimensional picture, the murder of a friendly, well-respected family by two ex-convicts for the purpose of robbing them, and he revealed a level of depth and perspective to it that showcased a different world in America at that time. A world that I'm sure many people either didn't know about, or cared not to think about.
Either way, Perry's desire to die in the presence of someone who cared about him, at least, "a little bit" was an incredibly powerful emotion to convey. It revealed his most intimate fear, which is that no one cared for him. That his life had been meaningless. I hope that by writing this novel about Perry, amongst other things, Capote at least provided Perry some reassurance before his hanging that his life had meaning. Not that it was a great life by most standards, but it had purpose enough that an important novel was written about it. Reading about his life had a an impact on me at least.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and I enjoyed watching the movie Capote too, which gave a different perspective on the events in Holcomb in 1959. It was one of my first forays into the murder/crime drama genre; although it was a very well written story, I don't think I will be exploring this genre more any time soon.