“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.”
It’s a great opening line, slightly sinister, letting you know that you’re in for something different. And indeed, you are.
On the surface In Cold Blood is about the gruesome (and graphically described) murders of the four members of the Clutter family in rural Kansas in 1959. Even to modern readers, the descriptions of the murders are graphic. It must have seemed more shocking to readers in 1966. Unlike traditional (up until then) crime novels, the identity of the perpetrators - ex-convicts Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – is not in question. The real story of In Cold Blood, the guts of this bloody murder, if you will, is why they did it and the deep motivations which influenced their behaviour.
Like the best mystery novels, the story of the capture of the culprits is fascinating in and of itself. And that alone would’ve been enough for a good story. But Capote (Ka-poe-tee) elevates the story to legendary status by getting into the minds of the killers, to try to determine the why from the what. In doing so, In Cold Blood moves beyond the traditional mystery novel and creates something entirely new: the true crime genre. Technically Capote did not invent this genre, though with In Cold Blood he set the benchmark by which all works of true crime are compared, and it has not yet been bettered.
How to tell a story
“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”
Not only is In Cold Blood an amazing story but it is also a lesson in how to tell a story. It is a study in multiple viewpoints. After the eventual capture of Hickock and Perry (again, a great story in and of itself) In Cold Blood gradually begins to introduce various letters, psychiatric and parole board reports, police interviews, court proceedings, and interviews with the killers themselves, in order to illuminate the differing backgrounds of the killers and their character and motivation. It’s upon reading these that you realise that up to this point – about halfway through the book – Capote has been using these documents to legitimise how he has so far portrayed the behaviours and conversations of the killers. It’s a wonderful literary trick, and though you realise that you have been manipulated by the writer – Capote is essentially pulling back the curtain on his craft – you can’t help but admire it.
On top of this clever structure is Capote’s wonderful writing, such as his description of the killer Hickock:
“…his face, which seemed composed of mismatching parts. It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off-centre. Something of the kind had happened…”
Or when Capote is describing Perry on trial:
“’I wonder why I did it’. He scowled, as though the problem was new to him, a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified colour. ‘I don’t know why,’ he said, as if holding it to the light, and angling it now here, now there….
Later, the author describes an interview with Hickock’s father, “…a man with faded, defeated eyes and rough hands; when he spoke, his voice sounded as if it were seldom used. ‘Was nothing wrong with that boy’, Mr. Hickcock said”. It’s a simple description but I bet you just read Mr. Hickock’s words in a soft, raspy ‘seldom used’ voice: that’s the craft of writing.
Nature versus Nurture
‘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 ones who had to pay’.
In essence In Cold Blood is a study in evil, contrasted in the characters of the two killers. Capote is asking the question: is evil an innate trait or is it a learned reaction to an environment? And which is worse: a sane yet calculating murderer, or an insane and unstable psychopath? Capote provides several examples of the killer’s behaviour for us to judge for ourselves.
“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat”.
Or, hitchhiking back from Mexico, the killers are picked up by Mr. Bell, a travelling salesman who mentions to Perry that he has five children: “Perry, as he later recalled, thought, Five kids – well, too bad”.
It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate. Capote definitely takes sides, though how well he hides his bias is debateable, and there is the accusation that his six-year involvement in the case was disingenuous. However, the book is not without humour: “Wearing an open-necked shirt and blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, he [Perry] looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.” Being hanged is referred to as taking “a ride on the big swing.”
In Cold Blood maintains its pace from start to finish, the multiple viewpoints keeping the narrative fresh. The final scenes are very powerful, including one of the most famous refrains in modern fiction, which transforms an innocent and childlike gesture to devastating effect. It’s a scene – and a book – not soon forgotten.
In Cold Blood is a good companion piece to On the Road: each is essentially the story of two outsiders travelling across the U.S. in the 1950s, though with very different intentions.
There are at least four film versions of In Cold Blood. The most recent two (Capote and Infamous) focus more on Capote’s investigation of the case in a classic ‘fish-out-of-water’ story. Before you see either movie see the clip below of the real Capote and then marvel at how well the actors nail his voice and mannerisms.