Monday, December 28, 2015

Never read In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, before bedtime

Title:  In Cold Blood
Author:  Truman Capote
Published:  1965
Challenge:  Lit Movement Challenge (Post-Modern)

Warning: never read In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, before bedtime (if you are faint-hearted like me).   It is the well-written, true and vivid account of four murders senselessly committed by two wayward ex-convicts in rural Kansas.

The storytelling was captivating, which kept me obsessively reading; however, I was unable to turn off my mind and shut my eyes after I was done reading for the night.  It was impossible to lie in my dark bedroom and have pleasant thoughts with this story heavy on my heart.

Since this is a non-fiction crime story, there are no real spoilers if you know anything about the story.  I knew some details from the beginning, though that did not affect my experience of the book.  However, if you do not care to know about the story because you want to read it for yourself, then skip these next few paragraphs.

The Story

Two convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, released on parole from a Kansas state penitentiary, met up later, in 1959, to commit a crime.  A cellmate, Floyd Wells, had told Hickock that he once worked for a farmer, Mr. Clutter, in Holcomb, Kansas, who kept a safe with thousands of dollars in cash.  Hickock and Smith planned to enter the Clutter home, find the safe, take the money, and escape to Mexico.  The most important part of the plan was to leave no clues or living witnesses.

The problem was, as discovered during the crime, there never was a safe because Mr. Clutter rarely used cash.  But that did not deter the convicts.  They left no witnesses after they bound, gagged, and murdered the four members of the Clutter family. The murderers left with a radio, binoculars, and less than $50 cash.

For the next six weeks, Hickock and Smith went on a crime spree, robbing and pawning their way to Mexico and back to the States, when it was apparent that they could not make a living in Mexico. Meanwhile, investigators were stumped because they knew the Clutter family had no known enemies, and the killers left only two shoe prints, one in blood and another in dust.  They had nothing else to go on.  That is until Floyd Wells came forward.  He was the lone living witness the killers left behind.

The remainder of the story explains how Hickock and Smith were tracked down and captured in Las Vegas, Nevada, questioned about the murders, and extradited to Kansas.  Both men confessed to their part in the murders, although Smith maintained later that he was solely responsible for all four deaths.  In addition, investigators were able to recover the boots matching the prints made at the Clutter home, connecting them to the scene.  In a short time, they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Appeals were made on account that they received an unfair trial, issues with insanity and the death penalty, improper collection of evidence, and lack of clues, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court three times (though each time denied).  And finally, in 1965, after almost five years on death row, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith hung for the murders of the Clutter family.

The Victims

The sweet Clutter family

The tragedy of this story comes from the introduction and perception of the Clutter family: hardworking, self-made man Mr. Clutter, gentle, invalid Mrs. Clutter, and their two youngest children, 16-year old Nancy, and 15-year old Kenyon.  The family was well known and liked throughout the community and in their church.  They were a pleasant family, productive citizens, non-threatening, contributing to the world, minding their own business, with only dreams of the future. (Those are my observations.)

The Killers

Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith

Of course, the killers were people, too, and Capote exposes their lives, as well.  Readers cannot help feeling pity for the absolutely unacceptable upbringing of Perry Smith.  I cannot say that I understand what happened to Hickock because he had a seemingly healthy, normal life, until he threw it away for a life of crime; but Smith may have been saved.  Capote presents him as having moments of compassion and concern, even for his victims, even a sense of morality.  Unfortunately, he was unloved, rejected, and abused by the authorities that should have loved, understood, and protected him in his youth; I believe that rejection and pain hardened his heart forever.  He also was bitter about missing out on an education.  I think he believed someone was to blame for his neglected life. When talking about why he committed the brutal murders, Perry said,
I was sore at Dick.  The tough brass boy.  But it wasn't Dick.  Or the fear of being identified.  I was willing to take the gamble.  And it wasn't because of anything the Clutters did.  They never hurt me.  Like other people.  Like people have all my life. Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the one who had to pay for it.
What breaks my heart is knowing that so many people are being hurt today; how long before another one breaks, before he takes it out on another good, gentle, unsuspecting individual or family?   Who is next to take the blame for someone else's pain and suffering?

Capote interviewed Smith

The Death Penalty

Capote makes the case that the justice system is designed in favor of the criminal.  Five of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution contain provisions to protect citizens suspected or accused of a crime.  Our Founding Fathers did not trust government with justice, especially for the accused. Hickock and Smith exhausted all means available to secure a fair trial and outcome.  I think they were given several fair trials.  Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the citizens of Kansas were very much against the death penalty; but in this case, they were accepting of death as an appropriate sentence for these two cold-blooded killers.

In an interview, Hickock said,
Well, what's there to say about capital punishment?  I'm not against it.  Revenge is all it is, but what's wrong with revenge?  Well I can see [kin of the Clutters'] side.  They're mad 'cause they're not getting what they want -- revenge.  
Hickock was wrong.  It was not revenge, but justice.  Attorneys involved in the case argued that the death penalty did not deter crime.  This may be correct for some when you consider that there are cold blooded killers living among us who do not care about human life, even their own.  But why should that then equal life in prison?  Nothing is ever going to penetrate the heart of a cold-blooded killer; why should he continue to live a comfy, protected life behind bars?  Besides, if he is not going to soften his heart in the face of death, he never will.  According to interviews, neither Hickock nor Smith had any remorse for their deeds, although Smith is said to have "apologized" during his "last words."

Those representing the lives of Hickock and Smith claimed that they should not have had to admit to their crimes because there was little evidence to tie them to the scene; they also pointed to the stolen items being improperly recovered without a warrant.  Murderers can certainly try to get off on a technicality, especially if they have a thorough lawyer; but it is not fair to the victims, or to the public.

Even still (since Capote described the Christian community as anti-capital punishment, making references to Scripture to argue against the death penalty), the Christian God is a God of justice.  If the punishment for sin is death, and sin is disobeying God, and God commands earthly governments to reward good to punish evil, I think capital punishment for senseless, cold-blooded murder is right in God's sight, even after a long, exhausted use of the legal justice system.  Whatever the end, God is a just God, and no one can escape His judgments, or wrath.


I read this for my Post-Modern (Lit Movement Challenge).  Post-Modernism is usually literature written after WWII and is known for its fragmented narrative style, with multiple narrators.  In Cold Blood meets these requirements.  Also, Capote is known for changing the way non-fiction novels were written when he wrote In Cold Blood; and I wonder if it is this work that helped define this movement.


Hamlette (Rachel) said...

My mom still remembers reading this when it first came out, and she said it scared her silly because she made the mistake of reading it while home alone for a weekend on her family's Iowa farm.

I read it after college some time, and I didn't get freaked out by it, but it definitely stuck with me all these years.

Ruth said...

Hey, Hamlette! I know your mom felt like she couldn't put it down, even knowing that it was freaking her out. That's crazy!!!! All alone for the weekend on her farm???? AHHHH!

Last night I watched Capote (2005). It was really about Capote during the time that he started his research of the murders and ended shortly after the hangings. I think the entire story had a major effect on his life and changed him forever. I also like how they showed Harper Lee played an important role in the collection of information. The only thing I did not care for was the graphic nature of the killings. I didn't need experience that.

RT said...

Yes, _In Cold Blood_ ain't for the faint of heart. Here is an odd tidbit (which I think I learned about on a TV special recently): Harper Lee assisted Truman Capote with the research. (Well, I think that is what I heard.) But now you have me poised to revisit Capote's masterpiece. I will, however, leave the lights on.

RT said...


Ruth said...

This is true. While reading In Cold Blood, I had read a little about how Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to interview townspeople. This was only supposed to be a magazine article, but it turned into something larger for Capote. Last night I watched the 2005 film "Capote," and Lee was very much involved in the collection of information. She also did a lot of the interviews b/c it seemed that people were not easily warmed to Capote.

In regards to the link you sent, it mentioned that Capote was a narcissist (which was why he left Lee off of the acknowledgments); the movie definitely portrays him as so. He was very bitter that he did not win a Pulitzer for In Cold Blood; maybe he was jealous that Lee won for Mockingbird, four years before.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Actually, IIRC it was seeing Capote that interested me in this book in the first place. Fascinating movie.

Ruth said...

If you return to this post -- yes, the movie was fascinating and overall I really liked it.

Rachel said...

I disagree with you on the death penalty. I've always thought about it as revenge. (Though unlike Hickock I'm against it.) But I generally don't get into arguments on the topic because it's something that people can get passionate and angry about, and really there's no way of changing anyone's mind on a subject like this.

When I was a kid, my aunt told me about a book that she read about two murderers who casually swerved so that they could run over a dog in the road. She said she put the book down then and there and never picked it up again. When I read this book a couple of decades later I discovered which book she was talking about. :)

Ruth said...

Yep, the death penalty is a hot topic.

That event - hitting the dog - was written by Capote about as insensitively as it was performed by the driver of the vehicle, which demonstrated how callous Hickock was. So sad.

Fanda Classiclit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fanda Classiclit said...

Great review, Ruth!

In Cold Blood made me think about our responsibilities to our own society. Perry & Dick were products of our education and moral system; we create people like them. I disagree with you about death penalty, because it's just legalizing murders. The victims' relatives wanted death penalty for revenge, but so did Perry & Dick when they killed the innocent family. I think God never wants His children to kill each other. Even if it's for justice, who can guarantee that the death penalty came from pure justice, not revenge?

In Cold Blood, for me, is a reminder for not judging too easily. In the end, the murdered family, Perry, and Dick are all victims of the moral degradation, the lack of humanity. Sad but true.

Ruth said...

The death penalty is a controversial issue, yes.

I agree that God never wants people to kill: Thou shall not murder. But murder is killing with evil intent and hatred, done by citizens. When government ends the life of a convicted murderer, after a fair trial, it is justice.

In Joshua, in the OT, God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to kill Achon for stealing. Yikes! In fact, Achon's entire household suffered for his sin and disobedience. They all were stoned to death. That was justice. God wanted the Israelites to understand that the wages of sin is death. This is throughout the OT; and since God does not change, I believe His commandment for governments to punish sin leaves room for the death penalty in cases of murder.

So that's just how I see it.