In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I’m not sure whether Truman Capote intended this or not, but it seems to me that In Cold Blood is nothing less than a meditation on the absolute banality of evil.

The triumph of the book—and it is a triumph—belongs to Capote, who crafted a new style of journalism with this book. By writing a non-fiction book using the conventions of a novel, Capote was able to bring an immediacy to the story that is lacking from most non-fiction and especially from most “true crime” books, a genre that has attracted more than its fair share of hacks looking to sensationalize the gruesome details of someone else’s last day on earth. Capote doesn’t sensationalize anything here. In many ways, and this isn’t a criticism, the story is as flat as the Kansas landscape in which it takes place.

For me, the most effective part of the book was the first. Capote alternates sections of Book 1 between the story of a typical November day for the Clutter family (going to the insurance agent, helping a friend bake pies, etc) with the day of Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith (eating lunch, going to the general store to buy stockings and rope). The reader is lulled into a sense of complete normalcy, though there is definitely something amiss. Book 1 ends with the meeting of the Clutter family and Hickcock/Smith, and the slaughter that electrified and terrorized the tiny town of Holcomb.

The subsequent sections deal with the aftermath and investigation of the crime, intercut with the killers wandering aimlessly in the West and Mexico looking for work (but not too hard), planning more petty crimes. It is the testimony of a prisoner who had told Hickcock about the Clutter family and their mythical safe with thousands of dollars in it, that leads to the arrest, conviction, and, eventually, the execution. Four shotgun blasts lead to six deaths, all of which are “in cold blood.”

Throughout, the novelistic prose takes the story way past the ordinary true crime story. Because Capote had incredible access to almost all the parties involved (including both killers), it allows him to take the form of the omniscient narrator. This is the essential ingredient that most true crime books are missing: in depth interviews with the criminals. Yes, Perry and Hickcock are portrayed with a degree of sympathy, but the murders themselves are never excused as the byproducts of not enough quality time with Daddy.

Unlike a book like Helter Skelter, the prosecutor’s version of the Manson murders, Capote doesn’t make the villains of his piece larger than life. Nor does he canonize the victims, or inflate his own role in the story. Bonnie Clutter’s fight with mental illness is discussed, as is the rough childhood of Perry Smith. When Capote does appear, he is in the nameless character of “a reporter.” In Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi made Manson and his followers larger than life and twice as mean. Capote portrays the killers here as exactly what they were: a couple of bored losers and petty criminals who, through a combination of arrogance, stupidity, and viciousness, entered the Big Time by killing four people.

It’s telling that when Hickcock and Smith were caught, the townspeople at first were incredulous. They had fully expected that this was some sort of professional hit organized by someone in town. They found it easier to believe that one of their neighbors and friends had planned and organized this than to believe that a couple of strangers had done it. Robbery was the goal (and perhaps the rape of young Nancy Clutter by Dick Hickcock—thwarted by Perry Smith who had no tolerance for sex crimes), but it was acknowledged that the murder might be necessary. “No witnesses,” the soon-to-be killers agreed over lunch. The killers knew nothing about Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter. They didn’t have to. The identities of the victims, and the lives they led, were never considered. As simple as that.

This is the dirty secret of this kind of evil. It’s all very ordinary. John Wayne Gacy killed over 30 people, and was a pillar of the community and a clown at kids’ parties. Jeffrey Dahmer was the normal guy who lived next door who kept body parts in his refrigerator in case he got hungry. Ted Bundy was an extremely intelligent man active in local politics when he wasn’t luring girls into his traps. Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith were just punks looking for a quick cash fix (the better to blow it in Vegas, most likely). That’s all they were. Yes, they had rough childhoods…especially Perry. But as one character in the book says, “So what? So did I. I may drink a little more, but I don’t kill people.”

We are conditioned to believe that evil froths at the mouth. It is recognizable in the over-the-top gesticulations and overheated rhetoric of Adolf Hitler, or in the wild eyes of Charles Manson, and it exists on 24-hour news channels. That’s all very comforting because we believe we can avoid evil as long as we can avoid those scary people. In Cold Blood reminds us that it also exists in settings as bucolic as the flat plains of Kansas, and it looks a lot like the guy standing next to you in the store, buying rope and joking with his friend.

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