In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote
Read Aug 2017
The assigned topic for a book discussion group of which I’m a member was “True Crime”. That’s not a genre I read, but of course the purpose of the book discussion group is to introduce new reading possibilities so I decided to join in.
I decided on “In Cold Blood” for two reasons: 1) Capote’s book is one of the largest selling “true crime” books of all times and is a “classic” in this category; 2) I attribute this book to the reason I locked my parents out of our rural home multiple times in the early 1970’s after reading this book at age 12. I really wanted to see how I would respond to the book when reading it several decades later.
Bottom line: the book is so well written I again read it in very few very long sittings.
In the first section “The Last to See Them Alive” we meet the community of Holcomb and each member of the Cutter family, and learn what family members were doing on November 15, 1959, their last day alive. His writing allows us to see vividly the landscape of the area, how ordinary the day was for the community, and how each family member was connected to the small community. We are introduced to the killers’ activities that day. We experience the shock of Nancy’s friends when they discover the families’ bodies and that of the community as they deal with the initial duties following the crime.
In the second section “Persons Unknown” we meet the crime investigators and feel their commitment to their task and the frustration they feel as the killers’ left little with which to trace them. We begin more in-depth interactions with the killers as they start their post-crime “travels”. We begin to see how damaged Perry Smith is and wonder at Dick Hickock’s capacity for compartmentalization of his actions.
The third section “Answer”, the investigators get a break and learn the identities of the killers through a cell-mate of Dick Hickock. But it takes time to actually apprehend the killers and during this time the community continues to suffer. We learn more of Perry and Dick’s story of their travels post-crime as well as their pasts. We learn the peculiarities of small-town jails and how the killers are kept separated during their incarceration before and during their eventual trial. Perry Smith’s correspondence is provided us and gives us an increasingly deep view of his past. We experience with the investigators their surprise that the killers will and do confess to their crimes. Perry’s confession finally provides us the simple specific details of the crime.
The fourth section, ”The Corner”, details the post-trial period. Frankly the depth of details about the other death-row inmates felt unnecessary but this is Capote being consistent about providing the whole story of the killers’ background and experiences. Apparently Capote provided the killers some help during their appeal process although his involvement is not discussed in the book. Aspects of the appeals and conclusions drawn by various appeal boards are provided.
Capote’s writing enables us to learn much about the killers. I use the term “killers” throughout this piece because that’s what they were as a result of this event. They weren’t killers before but somehow they became killers and we never really know why. Perry’s life was clearly horrendous and he is left a substantially damaged individual as a result. Dick’s life was much more normal and he entered into criminal acts initially to simply pay his bills. But something happens that tips the balance. We don’t ever understand what causes that and likely neither did he. The senselessness of the killings is remarkable and it’s not surprising that the members of Holcomb lost some of their sense of security. Some moved from the empty countryside and some never fulfilled their dreams of building a home in that empty countryside.
Capote’s book remains “a classic” not because it’s a “what happened and who did it and keep you on the edge of your seat” kind of book. It’s a classic because readers of this book will be left with sorrow that something so terrible could happen to such nice people; that individuals can become killers and we and they really don’t know why; that there are such damaged people in our society and that their damage is caused by other deeply damaged people; that there are people that grow up in good families that can take such a horrible path. That there is nothing obvious we can do to prevent further incidents or prevent becoming victims ourselves. We’re only left with locking our doors at night even when it seems we shouldn’t need to do that.