In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences by Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 2007; originally published in 1965. 343 pp)

A Brief Recap

“Mister Clutter was amused. ‘I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,’ he said. Then, touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last.” (13).

Reading like a precursor to one of the many CSI crime television series, the quote above summarizes the feel of In Cold Blood incredibly well, a novel where both innocence and brutality collide, where beauty meets tragedy.

In Cold Blood highlights the grisly murders of the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas. Four people with fatal shotgun wounds to the head. No apparent motive. No apparent suspect.

A lead appears only after a tip from a prison inmate. The inmate, having worked for Mr. Clutter on the farm, shared stories of the rich farmer with two convicts. In typical prison grandeur, these inmates—the prurient Dick and the unstable Perry—boasted of the eventual robbery and murder of the farming family.

With a lead, Dick and Perry soon find themselves caught. After a quick trial and verdict, the pair resides on death row with the gallows looming.

A Nonfiction Novel 

Andrew: In Cold Blood reads like fiction but presents reality. What were your thoughts, Donovan, on the truth-value of this book?

Donovan: For starters, the nonfiction nature of In Cold Blood makes for a frightening tale. It is easy to set aside violent fictional stories due to the widely understood falseness of a tale. However, the Clutter family senselessly died in real life at the hands of Dick and Perry.

“Somehow he haunts me the most, Kenyon does. I think it’s because he was the most recognizable, the one that looked most like himself—even though he’d been shot in the face, directly, head-on. He was wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, and he was barefoot—as though he’d dressed in a hurry, just put on the first thing that came to hand. His head was propped by a couple pillows, like they’d been stuffed under him to make an easier target” (64).

I find affinity with an historical individual. Just as I breath, think, eat, and sleep, so too did Herb, Bonnie, Kenyon, and Nancy Clutter. For this reason, the grisly end of this family conjures horror because I can imagine myself in their shoes.

Donovan: How about you, Andrew. Any thoughts on this “non-fiction novel”?

Andrew: It should be known that Capote wrote In Cold Blood as a literary experiment, as an attempt to see if he could write a nonfiction “novel”, one that read like fiction, but was, in fact, nonfiction at its core. As a result of his experiment, it is incredibly hard for the reader to decide whether or not In Cold Blood is a journalistic report, an actual novel, or something in between.

The Purpose of Setting

Andrew: Donovan, you mention the real-life nature of the case as frightening. Does Capote add anything else to the novel to instill fear in the reader?

Donovan: Certainly. Another cause for horror resides in Capote’s mundane portrayal of murder in the book. Capote masterfully interweaves non sequiturs about life in rural Kansas. As a result, the horrific actions of two individuals settle among descriptions of mundane tasks.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

For example, Capote depicts Alvin Dewey, the FBI the investigator on the case, meandering often around the crime scene:

“The detective moved from room to room. He had toured the house many times; indeed, he went out there almost every day, and, in one sense, could be said to find these visits pleasurable, for the place, unlike his own home, or the sheriff’s office, with its hullabaloo, was peaceful. The telephones, their wires still severed, were silent. The great quiet of the prairies surrounded him. He could sit in Herb’s parlor rocking chair, and rock and think” (152-153).

Instead of a yellow-taped crime scene, the detective explores the Clutter household finding the serenity of the Kansas countryside pleasurable.

Donovan: What are your thoughts on In Cold Blood’s setting?

Andrew: In all honesty, Donovan, I disagree. I think Capote meant to use the setting as a contrast to the murders.

In creative prose, it seems as though Capote made some artistic choices within the book. The setting, true to reality, is in a beautiful place, which he intentionally juxtaposes against the brutal murder of an entire family. The book begins and ends with striking descriptions of the landscape; the serenity of the plains becomes an unlikely setting for an eerie tragedy.

“This hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was among themselves” (88).

Fragmenting the community, the murder sows seeds of extreme suspicion among the entirety of the previously peaceful and placid town of Holcomb. Much like in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the reader is able to see their allegorical fall, where sin enters the community, and the first time the community is forced to reconcile with the presence evil.

Wherefore Art Thou, Protagonist?

Andrew: Donovan, did you find a protagonist in this book?

Donovan: Not really. In fact, it felt like Capote worked tirelessly to keep everyone situated in a moral gray area.

Truman Capote

Despite the clear evidence linking Dick and Perry to the murders, Capote refuses to let the citizens off the hook. As pious Christians opposed to capital punishment, the citizens hypocritically seek retributive justice.

Perry, the murderer, notes:

“Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom” (289).

Donovan: Were you able to find a protagonist, Andrew?

Andrew:It’s incredibly hard for me to pinpoint a definitive “protagonist” as a result of the great suspicions in Holcomb. Because everyone is a suspect, it was hard for me to root for any one person. It could be argued that Alvin Dewey, the FBI agent in charge of the murder investigation is the best protagonist, but it’s hard to say.

Perry Edward Smith and Dick Hickock are assumed to be the murderers (the antagonists), but Dewey assumes it must be someone close to the family. However, just as it seems that the murder investigation is going nowhere, Dewey finds the truth.

“The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.” (245)

What’s truly interesting about the novel is that Dewey finds it nearly impossible to condemn the two men responsible for killing an entire family, as they have also suffered in other ways. To Perry and Dick, the Clutters represent what they never had in life, and though they liked the family, they still murdered them.

“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” (244).

The murders were not due to the hatred of the family, but rather because the family represented everything the two gentlemen could not attain in life. Dewey offers no absolute moral judgment on any scenario. Dewey finds it difficult to press condemnation, perhaps because the novel is set in paradise. Because of the easygoing nature and the near perfection of the town, it is difficult for any of the characters to recognize evil.

Has the Jury Found a Verdict?

Andrew: Any concluding thoughts, Donovan?

Donovan: I enjoyed In Cold Blood, Andrew. I would recommend it. For starters, the book brings clarity to Capote, a critically acclaimed film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman based on the making of this book. In present times, In Cold Blood might not seem like a genre-defying masterpiece. But it was ahead of its time.

Donovan: What did you think, Andrew?

Andrew: Overall, In Cold Blood was thrilling. At times, it was a slow read, but the suspicion among the characters made it incredibly intriguing. Reading like an NCIS or CSI investigation, it was simply fun. I think that Capote succeeded in writing a nonfiction “novel”, as it read well, sounded like a genuine story, and kept me entertained as a reader. I think Capote deserves high praise for bringing a real-life event into a brilliant light.

Donovan’s Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5

Truman Capote, born Truman Persons, was an American novelist best known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Capote died in 1984.

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