Some Ramblings on ‘In Cold Blood’

My favourite of the alternate coves, with Dick and Perry on the front

I feel bad about not reading more fiction. I have this weird obsession with obtaining new information in everything that I do for pleasure, even if the information is trivial, or just generally less interesting than the insights gained from fiction. I’ve compromised by reading a lot of non-fiction that’s written like novels. So, it’s fitting that I just finished In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which birthed the genre of the non-fiction novel.

First, some context: In Cold Blood is a novel from 1966 that documents the murders of Herb Clutter and his family of four in a small village in Kansas by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. They carried out the murders in November 1959, then fled to Mexico, changed their minds and went back to Kansas City, and then were eventually caught over a month later in Las Vegas. The murders received extensive media coverage at the time, and the two murderers were eventually hanged. The book was adapted into a 2005 film called Capote, which is more about Capote himself and his research and writing for the book. The film is, I gather, much more historically accurate. Indeed, one of Truman Capote’s signature moves was flagrantly making stuff up. Here are some of my initial thoughts about the book:

  1. I was surprised by how little Capote inserted himself into the story. There’s only one sentence in which he appears to refer to himself, simply as ‘the journalist’. This is a little bit surprising because I had a picture of Truman Capote as a larger-than-life slightly narcissistic figure. But, come to think of it, him inserting himself would be too on-the-nose. The real reason this is surprising is that, in real life, he played a very important causal role in the events that occurred. He is, at least according to the film, the reason why the murderers got a re-trial. Perry thought they could use his book as evidence in their defence, and Capote ends up becoming Perry’s first real friend, of a sort. The fact that this is omitted from the book is dishonest, but I suppose he was trying to avoid blowback. If your actions strengthened the defence of two obviously guilty killers, you probably wouldn’t want to put it in a bestselling book either. In Cold Blood is in this really interesting position of being an impossible book to finish, because Truman Capote ended up so intimately intertwined with the events. And yet no-one else could have written the book, because he’s the only one that did the extensive research needed to write it.
  2. Capote was gay and spent most of his adult life in a relationship with fellow writer Jack Dunphy. He had a high-pitched voice and very distinctive vocal mannerisms which, one would assume, meant that he was faced with a harder job gaining the trust of the Kansans. It’s also easy to speculate that his sexuality may have left him with more of an interest in outsiders, whether they be murderers or not.  
  3. Capote’s interviews were conducted with Harper Lee, who just so happened to be a childhood friend. Given that he was writing this book when To Kill a Mockingbird came out, and given his upbringing in Alabama, it makes sense that he has an interest in the racial components of the story. Perry was half-Native American, and this is brought up constantly, but I didn’t feel like I understood its significance. Is it that he never really came to terms with his identity? Is it just another generic hurdle to him having a successful life? Is he generalising from one example (his alcoholic mother) to think that all Native Americans are bad, and does this make his childhood neglect sting even more? If there is no symbolic significance, then why bring it up so much?
  4. I recommended this book to a friend and said that a large part of it was a deep psychological analysis of the killers. This friend has been reading too much about sketchy psychology studies, and reflexively put what I was talking about in the same category. I suppose the cardinal sin of psychological theorising is that it is not sufficiently grounded in behaviour. Good novelists do a good job giving genuine psychological insight because they talk about what characters say and do, and humans are good at extrapolating from this. Psychological studies involve coming up with a hypothesis about the mind and testing it in a contrived experiment. Why can’t we do the thing novelists do, but scientifically? Because as soon as effects become large and obvious enough that we can notice them without formal study, then our observations cease to be psychology and start becoming journalism.  
  5. The selective revelation of information in this book is really clever. Every time you think you have Dick and Perry’s relationship figured out, there’s something new that makes you realise you haven’t. At first, Dick seems like the puppeteer, and Perry is the real psychopath who’s going to do the killings for him. Then you realise both men think they’re mentors of the other. This would normally result in one-upmanship, but they don’t have the rapport for that. Perry is grasping at a higher social class, and Dick is class static. Then there’s this sexual element going on, where Dick is paedophilic, and Perry thinks people being unable to contain their sexual impulses is uncouth (his problem is less so about Dick’s cravings being for children!). So, again, you have the dynamic where Dick just accepts his terrible preferences and way of life, and Perry tries to do better, but puts in so little effort that he ends up even worse out of disaffection.
  6. The end of the book drags. Some of this appears to be a result of Capote not wanting the book to end, and so stretching it out by doing things like giving backstory to the killers’ fellow inmates on death row. But most of it is just that, legislatively, executing someone in the US drags on for a very long time. There’s a trial, then a re-trial, then a lot of questioning of the re-trial because the initial person in charge of the re-trial retired. All in all, arrest to execution took six years. This is the kind of thing that could have been interesting – there’s a constant tension between justice right now and the more abstract ideals of due process – but, for me at least, wasn’t.

Thanks to Sydney for reviewing a draft of this post, and for getting me to read the book!

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