"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

Updated: Jul 20

"The laconic, atmospheric, and intensively researched narrative of the lives of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, and of the two men, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, who brutally killed them on the night of November 15,1959, is the seminal work of the 'new journalism.' Perry Smith is one of the great dark characters of American literature, full of contradictory emotions. 'I thought he was a very nice gentleman,' he says of Herb Clutter. 'Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.' Told in chapters that alternate between the Clutters house-hold and the approach of Smith and Hickock in their black Chevrolet, then between the investigation of the case and the killers' flight, Capote's account is so detailed that the reader comes to feel almost as if he were a participant in the events."

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In the 'Introduction' of Capote's true crime novel In Cold Blood, American writer Bob Colacello states: "Capote was one of the first who dared to elevate journalism to the level of art. In Cold Blood is a work of great discipline and even greater restraint, a tale of fate, as spare and elegiac as a Greek tragedy, as rich in its breadth and depth as the classic French novels of Stendhal and Flaubert. 'We all have our souls and we all have facades,' Truman Capote told his friend Kay Meehan a year or so before he came upon the news that would inspire his masterpiece, 'and then there's something in between that makes us function as people. That's what I have the ability to communicate.' "

The novel, which was published in 1965, is an eyewitness account of Capote's visitation to the scene of the murder as well as meetings with the murderers and townspeople- - - a retelling of the crime and aftermath, mostly from the eyes of those affected, by hundreds of hours of interviews and interrogations. The novel, ultimately, was the end of Capote which led him to alcoholism that took his life in 1984.

Like most small-town murders, a tension between residences is created when a well-known and well-liked family of four is brutally murdered, and everyone begins to point a finger at the other: "But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again - - - those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers." Fortunately, the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) didn't allow these accusations to keep them from finding the real killers.

Clutter family
The victims: Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter

" 'Deep down,' Perry continued, 'way, way rock bottom, I never thought I could do it. A thing like that.' " Perry Smith, one of the murderers, confesses to his cohort and partner-in-crime, Richard Hickock, about murdering the Clutter family. "Presently, he said, 'Know what it is that really bugs me? About that other thing[Clutter murder]? It's just I don't believe it- - - that anyone can get away with a thing like that.' And he suspected that Dick [Richard] didn't, either. For Dick was at least partly inhabited by Perry's mystical-moral apprehensions. Thus: 'Now, just shut up!' "

Capote writes clearly of the impact that Smith's and Hickock's past may have played leading up to the murders, mostly focusing on Smith's traumatic childhood. During the trial portion of the book, a psychologist is brought in to point out how the two murderers may not have been responsible for their actions due-to instances in their past - - - a horrific car crash in Hickock's that left him with a lop-sided face and black-out spells, as well as Smith being physically and emotional abused by his alcoholic mother and father. In exploring these traumas, In Cold Blood leaves the impression that these two men were merely ticking time bombs and that the Clutter family, unfortunately, had to pay for it.

The trauma shared by Hickock and Smith help to shape the two murderers into actual human beings rather than monsters throughout the novel: one scene, where we get to read a letter to Smith from his last living sister, readers get to see how he was perceived by his family members, as his sister goes on to degrade him to the maturity level of a child and that she is above him because of that- - -but she also reveals her jealousy of their father loving him more than he ever loved her (despite the excessive abuse). A close friend of Smith's tells him to be careful writing her anymore because he believes that: 'they can only serve to increase your already dangerous anti-social instincts.'

Part of the narrative, too, is the KBI agent in-charge of the Clutter murder, Alvin Dewey: One day while visiting Holcomb's well-known cafe (Hartman's) where Dewey is told he looks awful from weight loss and fatigue - - - Dewey recalls that he had spent: 'two wearying and wasted days trying to trace that phantom pair, the Mexicans sworn by Paul Helm to have visited Mr. Clutter on the eve of the murders.' And then he gets heckled by a local, who wants to know why he hasn't found the people responsible yet,but Dewey simply smiles and walks away, having put up with numerous people being angry that the murders were taking so long to solve.

But it wasn't footwork that got the pair arrested, it was an old cellmate who had given Hickock the idea that there was $10,000 in a safe at the Clutter farm that came forward: " 'I don't exactly recall how Mr. Clutter first got mentioned. It must have been when we were discussing jobs, different kinds of work we'd done. Dick, he was a trained car mechanic, and mostly that was the work he'd done. Only, once he'd had a job driving a hospital ambulance. He was full of brag about that. About nurses, and all what he'd done with them in the back of the ambulance. Anyway, I informed him how I'd worked a year on a considerable wheat spread in western Kansas. For Mr. Clutter. He wanted to know if Mr. Clutter was a wealthy man. Yes, I said. Yes, he was. In fact, I said, Mr. Clutter had once told me that he got rid of ten thousand dollars in one week. I mean, said it sometimes cost him ten thousand dollars a week to run his operation. After that, Dick never stopped asking me about the family. How many was they? What ages would the kids be now? Exactly how did you get to the house? How was it laid out? Did Mr. Clutter keep a safe? I won't deny it- - - I told him he did. Because I seemed to remember a sort of cabinet, or safe, or something, right behind the desk in the room Mr. Clutter used as an office. Next thing I knew, Dick was talking about killing Mr. Clutter. Said him and Perry was gonna go out there and rob the place, and they was gonna kill all witnesses- - - the Clutters, and anybody else that happened to be around. He described to me a dozen times how he was gonna do it, how him and Perry was gonna tie them people up and gun them down. I told him, 'Dick, you'll never get by with it.' But I can't honestly say I tried to persuade him different. Because I thought it was just talk. Like you hear plenty of in Lansing. That's about all you do hear: what a fellow's gonna do when he gets out- - - the holdups and robberies and so forth. It's nothing but brag, mostly. Nobody takes it serious. That's why, when I heard what I heard on the earphones- - - well, I didn't hardly believe it. Still and all, it happened. Just like Dick said it would.' "

Meanwhile, readers also get to experience Hickock and Smith's troubles as they are on the run after the murders which is done masterfully by Capote. And although one would assume that the killers would stay as far away from Kansas as possible, the two end up back there, only to miraculously get out before the police can catch up with them. The pair decide to head to Florida, where, on December 19, 1959, an entire family was murdered in the exact same way as the Clutters; Hickock and Smith both adamantly denied that they were involved with it - - - and back in 2012- - - Hickock and Smith's bodies were exhumed to compare their DNA with a profile found on one of the victim's clothing: they were not a match. The case remains unsolved til this day.

" Presently he[Smith] came across an inner-page story that won his entire attention. It concerned murder, the slaying of a Florida family, a Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Walker, their four-year-old son, and their two-year-old daughter. Each of the victims, though not bound or gagged, had been shot through the head with a .22 weapon. The crime, clueless and apparently motiveless, had taken place Saturday night, December 19, at the Walker home, on a cattle-raising ranch not far from Tallahassee."

Not soon after the pair leave the Florida beaches, they are arrested on what they believe to be parole violations, but it's clear, when the arresting officers are KBI agents that they had been caught for the Clutter murders. " 'Listen good, Perry. Because Mr. Duntz[KBI agent] is going to tell you where you really were...' Midway in the questioning, after he'd[Smith] begun to notice the number of allusions to a particular November weekend, he'd nerved himself for what he knew was coming, yet when it did, when the big cowboy with the sleepy voice said, 'You were killing the Clutter family' - - - well, he'd damn near died. That's all. "

The confession that follows is the most intense part of the book, given in it's entirety, readers finally get to know what happened to the Clutter family that cold night in November, 1959. Smith reveals that he never had the intention to kill anyone in the home, and that when the safe hadn't been found, he had fully intended to leave, even without Hickock, but what kept him there was Hickock threatening to rape Nancy Clutter. Smith states that he hates people who can't control themselves sexually, and that he didn't allow his partner to touch her at all. He also reveals that he thought about killing Hickock afterwards,stating: " no witnesses."

Capote didn't write 'In Cold Blood' until after Hickock and Smith were executed. The amount of interviews, court room appearances, and even witnessing the executions of both murderers shines through in this novel. But the book has also brought about doubters; a handful of people have since come forward to state that Capote's masterpiece is either 'not the full story' or 'completely wrong.' Just as recent as 2017, a man came forward with a 'manuscript' of a book that Hickock was writing, that contained a different confession on how and why the murders took place- - - Hickock states in this unpublished manuscript that a man by the name 'Roberts' had hired him and Smith to kill the Clutters.

Whether or not you believe that Capote wrote the whole truth or some of the truth, this novel is flawless and beautiful. The writing is poetic and the flow of the story keeps moving, page after page, never stopping long enough to bore the reader. I highly recommend this book as a MUST READ for anyone who loves the True Crime genre.

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