Controversial and compelling, In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime and the effect it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human. The book that made Capote’s name, In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative.
I first read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at the age of 17. It was one of three books that I read and studied at A Level, the others being Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (my 17 year old self remembers this being mind-numbingly boring) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Last year, I decided to reread Wuthering Heights to see if it’s as brilliant as my teenage self believed and, lo and behold, I found that it actually isn’t all that great and is incredibly problematic in places. Given how much my opinion on Wuthering Heights had changed after more than 10 years, I thought it would be interesting to see how I’d feel about In Cold Blood as well.
I don’t remember much about my original reading of this book except for one thing:
I felt really, really sorry for Perry Smith.
For anyone who hasn’t read the book or isn’t familiar with the case, Perry Smith wasn’t one of the victims. No, he was the one who carried out the physical act of slaying the Clutter family. He was the one who slit Herb Clutter’s throat, shot him in the head, then proceeded to execute his wife and two teenage children.
I found this twisted sense of empathy that Capote’s words evoked in me problematic then and I found it problematic on my second reading of In Cold Blood as well. Don’t get me wrong, In Cold Blood is a fantastic book. It questions whether killers are born or made. It questions the morality of the death penalty. It tells the story of the Clutter murders from multiple different perspectives, from that of the killers to that of the Clutters’ friends and acquaintances. It explores whether or not the Clutters’ killers received a fair trial and forces its readers to question whether or not they believe perpetrators of heinous crimes are deserving of a fair trial when there’s absolutely no question about their guilt. It also evaluates the impact that the killings had on everyone involved, from Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock’s families to the detectives involved in the case. All in all, In Cold Blood explores the killings and subsequent trial from every possible angle and in painstaking detail, making for an engaging and fascinating read. Capote’s writing is highly evocative too. I didn’t simply read this book. I experienced it. I felt as though I was in the court room when the jury delivered their verdict. I felt as though I was sitting in the warehouse at Lansing prison in the early hours of the morning, listening to the rain drumming down on the roof as I waited for Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock to be brought out to the gallows.
But still, this empathy that I felt for Perry Smith throughout the entire book really troubled me. I see myself as an empathetic person, but this was a man who slaughtered four people and admitted himself that he didn’t feel all that guilty about it (p. 282, Penguin Modern Classics edition). I decided to do a bit of digging online to see what other people had to say about this book and, much to my relief, I found that I wasn’t alone in my empathy for this killer. Now, I’m not saying that killers are completely undeserving of empathy. Their actions don’t occur in a vacuum and this is something which Capote was evidently trying to convey in In Cold Blood. Smith’s childhood is discussed in great detail – much more so than Hickcock’s is – and of course most people would feel sorry for anyone who’d had to endure what Smith did as a child.
But I feel as though Capote was hell-bent on trying to evoke his readers’ pity for Perry Smith the killer. It’s mentioned several times that Smith had put a cardboard box under Herb Clutter and a pillow under Kenyon’s head to make them more comfortable. It’s also revealed that Smith pulled Nancy’s duvet over her, again to make her more comfortable, and stopped Hickcock from sexually assaulting her. For me, it felt as though Capote was trying to say something along the lines of, “Perry wasn’t a bad person, he just made some bad choices.” And of course, bad choices don’t necessarily make someone a bad person…but most people’s bad choices don’t usually involve murdering an entire household.
Capote also made much of Smith’s apparent childishness, both psychologically and physically, writing, for example, about how Detective Alvin Dewey had noted that when Smith was sitting in the interrogation room in Las Vegas, his ‘small booted feet’ didn’t quite meet the floor (p. 333). Such descriptions, combined with Smith’s supposed ‘good’ deeds, almost make him a sympathetic character.
Capote obviously saw Smith as a sympathetic character. He spent years interviewing both him and Hickcock and it’s said that he never fully recovered from the loss of Smith. The bond he had with Smith obviously influenced how he portrayed him in the book and, as a result, I feel as though readers are very much viewing Smith through Capote’s eyes. I have to question whether I’d have as much empathy for Smith if I read a more objective account of the murders and the trial that followed. Because of this, I’ve decided to give Gary McAvoy’s And Every Word Is True a try. Sure, it might not necessarily be an objective account, but it will be a different account at the very least.
Despite my feelings regarding the portrayal of Perry Smith, I did enjoy In Cold Blood and I highly recommend it to any true crime aficionado.