Identifying with a Murderer: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

While driving on the winding highway through Sardine Canyon, an area sparse of houses besides the occasional farm and dilapidated, weather-beaten barn, I listened with aching suspense as the murder of the Clutter family was relayed to me via book on CD.  I travel this road twice a week for school, and the mountainous surroundings are flecked with brilliant hues of red, gold, and orange because of autumn’s arrival.  This view took my breath away a few weeks ago, and listening to the story of murder and its consequences took my breath away as I drove home in the darkness.

Yes, I’m talking about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).  It’s a non-fiction account of a murder in the 1950s in rural Kansas.  I finally understand why everybody has raved about this book.  I’ve known that it’s a must-read (or, in my case, a must-listen), but when I tried to sit down with it several years ago, I couldn’t get past the first few pages of dense prose.  Capote has a descriptive style, almost that of jargon-prose on acid.  He’s detailed, exacting, and purposeful.  This style put me off the first time I opened this book.  It almost put me off as I began listening, but I knew what I was getting into.  I knew it would be a hurdle to follow the writing and get to the reward at the end of the story.

I had plenty of time to get to that reward as I drove, so I did.  I listened through the descriptions of Holcomb and Garden City, Kansas.  I strained to pay attention as sixteen-year-old Nancy Clutter was described in excruciating detail.  I listened patiently as I heard about Herb Clutter and his wife Bonnie, a sickly woman with absolutely no ambition or backbone.  I felt my heart go out to Nancy as she listened to her father tell her not to date Bobby any longer, for their relationship would soon have to end because of their religious differences.  (That was a familiar story in the rural town where I grew up.)

All of these details were boring, if you ask me, but they set the stage for the real purpose of the story, that of an unfolding murder investigation and the consequences of the murderers’ actions.  You see, after all of that work getting to know the Clutters, they were found murdered in their home one Sunday morning.  Two of Nancy’s friends found her in bed with a gunshot wound to the head.  Under her covers, she was elaborately tied up.  The whole family was tied in the same way, just in different parts of the house.

Truman Capote, 1959, public domain photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Capote follows the rest of the story carefully, through accounts of the local sheriff to the high school teacher who came to help identify Nancy’s dead brother, Kenyon.  The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) comes next, along with accounts from the town’s postmistress and friends of the family.  This is why the book is so gripping.  Capote details every point of view and every happening, nearly exactly as it happened.  The account allows the reader to live through the investigation, as if some sort of omniscience is possible.

Here’s what happened.  The Clutter family (Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon) are discovered tied up and shot through their heads in the family home.  Nothing much is missing from the home.  The police are confused.

Meanwhile, Capote already knows who the killers are because he has researched the entire incident from the beginning to the grim end.  He follows the two killers around, detailing their movements after the killing and giving background information on their lives and childhoods.

Eventually, of course, there’s a break in the case, and the KBI is able to identify and arrest the killers.  They are Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith.  The two young men are reckless and remorseless, and their confessions are gripping.  We don’t really know what happened to the family that night until their confessions are revealed.

Here’s what they say happened.  Dick had a prison buddy who told him about working for Mr. Clutter and how rich he was.  He mentions a safe in Mr. Clutter’s office.  Dick, once out of prison (he served time for passing bad checks), hatches a plan to rob the Clutters and get the money from the safe.  He enlists his old cell mate Perry, and the two enter the house at night.  They find no safe, no money, nothing.  They are angry about this and wake up Mr. Clutter.  Later, we learn the real reason they did not leave was because Dick wished to rape the daughter Nancy.  He knew she was there.  But Perry, although a cold-blooded killer, hates “perverts” and has no respect for people who cannot control themselves sexually.  He prevents Dick from doing so, but in order to finish the job and because the family has seen their faces, Perry shoots all of them in head.  He attributes two of the shootings to Dick, but later denies that.  Dick denies it as well.

The rest of the book details the trial and the outcome.  It’s fascinating.

But, it’s also terrifying.  There are two reasons why.

The first reason is the idea that something like this could (and did) happen.  The Clutters were a normal, 1950s farm family, living in a small town in Kansas.  They end up tied up and knife- and gun-point and executed.  They stayed so quiet and accommodating throughout the ordeal in the hopes that the men would leave.  Mr. Clutter even offered to write a check (something Dick scoffs at because he’s an expert at writing bad checks).  However, they die anyway.  They are killed just like that.  They didn’t even know that they should’ve been fighting back or trying to escape.

I always let stuff like this get to me.  I think, “This could really happen to me.”  I guess it could, but could it really?  I am probably just freaking myself out.  And as I drove in the dark, the scariness of the situation crept even further into my bones.

On top of that, during the time I was listening to the book, my husband and oldest daughter went on a camp-out overnight while I stayed home with my youngest.  I barely slept the entire night, for every little creak and groan of the house alerted me to the possibility of crazed intruders.  I know.  I let my imagination run wild.  I guess that’s why I can’t watch Law & Order or Criminal Minds without my husband.  I’m a sissy.

The second reason I found this story to be scary has to do with my identification with Perry.  He had a rough childhood, suffering abuse at the hands of nuns and neglect from his parents.  All of his siblings turn out crazy and end up suicidal, except for one sister who wishes to distance herself from the rest of the family.  I don’t blame her.  As Perry’s psychological evaluation is recounted, I felt so sorry for him.  He had an inferiority complex and had a hard time feeling empathy for others.  Yet, he’s soft spoken and somewhat kind, for the investigators noticed that somebody had put a pillow under Kenyon’s head before shooting him, put a large cardboard box under Mr. Clutter so he wouldn’t have to lay on the cement floor of the basement, and tucked Nancy Clutter under her blankets.  This was Perry.  He did have some sort of compassion, but he felt no remorse.  Even toward the end when an old friend comes to visit him and tries to give him some religion, Perry feels nothing.  He just cannot feel remorse.  In this, I do not identify with him, but I could see how his childhood left him bereft and alone.  I’m sure many criminals have this same sort of background, and I’ve never felt sorry for them, but the way Capote presents the information and allows the reader to live the happenings through all of the players in the incident, including the killers, caused me to feel sorry for the killers despite their terrible actions.

I highly recommend this book.  It frightened me, it bored me at times, and it made my heart bleed, but I’m glad to finally say that I’ve read In Cold Blood.  It’s an enthralling classic and a must-read, and now I know why.

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