Friday, January 7, 2022

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

True crime masterpiece of murder on the Kansas prairie
Although I have lived in Kansas for roughly half my life, this is the first time I’ve read In Cold Blood, the book by Truman Capote that figures prominently in the literary history of my adopted home state. Capote conducted extensive research and interviews in the Sunflower State during the writing of this book about the murders of the Clutter family in the small rural Western Kansas town of Holcomb, near Garden City. In Cold Blood has been described as a “non-fiction novel,” which sounds like an oxymoron. Nowadays we would recognize this format as the prototype for the same sort of investigative journalism that comprises the books of John Krakauer or Sebastian Junger. There isn’t enough fiction in the book to qualify it as a historical novel, but Capote does include fictionalized conversations and occurrences at which he couldn’t possibly have been present nor gleaned verbatim from interviews.

In the early morning hours of November 15, 1959, Holcomb farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenaged children Nancy and Kenyon were tied up and brutally murdered in their home. To Kansas law enforcement officers, there was no apparent motive for the crime and no leads as to the identity of the killer or killers. Capote’s account, however, reveals early on that the perpetrators were two drifter ex-cons, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. As he gradually reveals the how and why behind the shocking crimes, Capote alternates back and forth from the perspective of Hickok and Smith to the townspeople of Holcomb and the detectives of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Capote goes beyond the murders to detail the manhunt, apprehension, interrogation, trial, and sentencing of the murderers and the effect of the crime on the lives of Holcomb’s citizenry.

Capote’s treatment of the subject is insightful, disturbing, poignant, and dare I say, entertaining. There isn’t a dull moment in the entire book as the reader becomes intimately involved in the lives of the victims, predators, and the surrounding community. For a big-city writer, Capote’s depiction of small-town Kansas is respectfully realistic. There is a touch of country-bumpkin hokum in the lives of Holcomb, but overall the Kansans come across as honest, competent working folk with a strong sense of communal concern and generosity. The KBI detectives are admirably tenacious and clever in their investigation. Capote also examines the upbringings and motives of the killers, revealing intriguing psychological facets that transcend two-dimensional stereotypes.

Capote’s take on the trial leads one to believe that he is against capital punishment, but he isn’t preachy about it. At the time, the method of execution in Kansas was hanging, and the author isn’t shy about detailing the barbaric details particular to that sentence. Capote consciously strives to make the reader sympathize with the killers as well as their victims. This is not done with the intention of excusing their crimes, however, but rather to illustrate that inside every monster is a man who somewhere went wrong. The humanity with which Capote portrays Hickok and Smith doesn’t make you like them, but it does make you more engaged in their stories. Ultimately, the book raises questions about the philosophical definitions of sanity and responsibility. To what degree are we as humans culpable for our actions, as opposed to what’s predetermined by nature and nurture? The chilling senselessness of the Clutter murders is a reminder of the indiscriminate arbitrarity of fate and the fleeting fragility of human life. Through Capote’s brilliant literary lens, this tragic story of a seemingly random family in Kansas becomes an indelible emotional experience that will haunt the reader for life.
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