Wednesday, 9 May 2012

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

This is a great book: fascinating for the details of the horrific crimes and even more fascinating for Capote's fascination with the crimes. And then there is the writing: precise, potent and poetic.

From the start Capote creates an air of inevitability. Assuming some knowledge of the crime at the heart of the book he uses this knowledge and amplifies it to give the reader a sense of impending horror. A sketch of the town of Holcomb is followed by this paragraph - "Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans - in fact, few Kansans - had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there." Like the whistle of a train rushing past a platform this shatters the peaceful stillness of the small-town still life we have been first presented with. That's if the title of the book and of the first section: "The Last to See Them Alive" hadn't made that peace a foggy illusion even before the start. (At this stage I'll warn those who want to know no more not to continue. I don't think many can have avoided the knowledge that they will pick up in the rest of this post but if you know little and want to read the book first, do so, then come back here and disagree with me.)

Scenes from the lives of the Clutter family are now interspersed with the journey that is bringing their killers to their ranch. Descriptions of the weather vibrate with a sense of impending doom. "It was ideal apple eating weather; the whitest sunlight descended from the purest sky, and an easterly wind rustled, without ripping loose, the last of the leaves on the Chinese elms. Autumns reward western Kansas for the evils that the remaining seasons impose: winter's rough Colorado winds and hip-high, sheep slaughtering snows; the slushes and the strange land fogs of spring; and summer, when even crows seek the puny shade, and the tawny infinitude of bristles, blaze." The final 'blaze' here is like a match being set to the "tawny infinitude of bristles".

The desire to just keep firing quotes at you, dear reader, is overwhelming. The introduction of the two killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock lets us know that something is off  kilter. Here are two excerpts.

Dick Hickock & Perry Smith
First Smith: "Sitting, he had seemed a normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight-lifter - weight-lifting was, in fact, his hobby. But some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots with steel buckles, would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady's dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, strutting on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle bound."

And then Hickock "But neither Dick's physique nor the inky gallery adorning it made as remarkable an impression as 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; the imperfectly aligned features were the outcome of a car collision in 1950 - an accident that left his long-jawed and narrow face tilted, the left side rather lower than the right, with the result that the lips were slightly aslant; the nose askew, and his eyes not only situated at uneven levels but of uneven size, the left eye being truly serpentine, with a venomous, sickly-blue squint that although it was involuntarily acquired, seemed nevertheless to warn of bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature."

Both men have had major accidents which have left lasting scars. Both have mismatched halves. But the greatest mismatch of all proves to be their partnership. We get both a sense of the evil that may lurk within both but also a sense that it doesn't simply define either man. Indeed, there is a sense that Capote is really fascinated with Smith because, perhaps, he sees something of himself in him. Smith is a bit of a dandy and has aspirations to be an artist of some kind. Saying that his feet would "have neatly fitted into a delicate lady's dancing shoes" emphasizes this association; Capote having been widely known to wear ladies clothes (Fact uncertain! See comments). Smith also led a migratory existence, separated from his mother, somewhat like Capote. And his jealousy is often remarked, and Capote himself was consumed by jealousy, his friendship with Harper Lee being fatally damaged when she won a Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird and Capote didn't with In Cold Blood. Indeed Lee gave Capote a lot of help on In Cold Blood, helping him with his research and gaining him access to many of the key players through their wives.

Truman Capote and Perry Smith
I found these pictures of Capote and Smith quite extraordinary. Look at the hands. Who is mimicking who? Is Capote trying to enter Smith's headspace or is Smith trying to charm Capote? It is interesting that one of the elements of the book that has been challenged for veracity is a friendship between Smith and the wife of the undersheriff whose apartment is attached to the jail. Is this a way of writing in his own friendship with Smith? The only mention of Capote that I noticed when reading (see underlined) was the following, said by Hickock about Smith: "I've done my damnedest to get along with Perry. Only he's so critical. Two faced. So jealous of every little thing. Every letter I get, every visit. Nobody ever comes to see him except you,' he said, nodding at the journalist, who was equally as well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock.""

I may have given the impression that life in peaceful Holcomb was Edenic. Well Capote presents some of the Clutters, particularly daughter Nancy as almost too good to be true but he also gives us a sense that thing did go wrong there too, and that there may have been snakes active in the Garden City area.

Mrs Clutter had spent some time in psychiatric care and as the wife of a rich and well respected man she had little to do but brood and keep in the background. This description tells us of a life perhaps wasted,  a life lived for others, or what she thought others wanted. She had the form but not the content of a happy life."As a girl she had won an elocution prize; maturity, it seemed, had reduced her voice to a single tone, that of apology, and her personality to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offense, in some way displease." (I am currently rereading William Gaddis' brilliant Carpenter's Gothic and this quote seems to apply perfectly to the wife in that book. I may have to steal it.)

And it's not just in the Clutter family that there are problems. Capote sees the whole society as having unacknowledged 'issues'.  "Without exception, Garden Citians deny that the population of the town can be socially graded ('No, sir. Nothing like that here. All equal, regardless of wealth, colour, or creed. Everything thew way it ought to be in a democracy; thats' us'), but, of course, class distinctions are as clearly observed, and as clearly observable, as in any other human hive. A hundred miles west and one wuld be out of the 'Bible Belt', that gospel-haunted strip of American territory in which a man must, if only for business reasons, take his religion with the straightest of faces, but in Finney County one is still within the Bible Belt borders, and therefore a person's church affiliation is the most important factor influencing his class status." Morality and religion can be practised for economic as well as moral reasons. Once more form with dubious content.

The virtues which seem most valued there are encapsulated in Herb Clutter, who lifted himself by his bootstraps into a position of local prominence. But this paragraph seems to echo with other I've quoted already. "'Everything Herb had, he earned - with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man, as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life.' But that life, and what he'd made of it - how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this - smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?" What help was God in making his fortune? Was it that he belonged to the right church? And the "big, annihilating sky" seems to echo the "sheep slaughtering snows" of earlier and here the "blaze" is lit. Nature always carries the sort of threat that Hickock and Smith did. Life is perhaps more strange and chaotic than these communities acknowledge.

Smith's painting of Jesus
However Capote doesn't dismiss religion - the local minister speaks out against the death penalty and there is a strong acknowledgement of the ties that hold the community together. There is also a sense that Perry Smith may have gone down a less destructive path had he met up with another man he met in prison rather than meeting Hickcock. When in prison he had been influenced by this man and there are a number of mentions of  a painting of Jesus he executed there. However, there is no sense that Smith is genuine in any belief. His dreams of treasure hunting and deep sea diving are fatally undermined by his refusal to get into the water because of his fear of looking ridiculous without his clothes on.

The growth of the fear within the community that they are not protected by God from random evil and that virtue is no guarantee leads to prayer being supplemented with other promises of security:  "'Around here,' according to the proprietor of one Garden City hardware store, 'locks and bolts are the fastest-going item. Folks ain't particular what brand they buy: they just want them to hold.' Imagination, of course, can open any door - turn the key and let terror walk right in."

We get to know quite a few people in this "nonfiction novel" (Capote's phrase) It is easy to introduce so many characters when you can nail someone in a line or two. Here is an example of Capote on one of the detectives. "Duntz hunched forward. He is a heavyweight with a welterweight's spontaneous agility, but his eyes are hooded and lazy. He drawls; each word, formed reluctantly and framed in a cattle-country accent, lasts a while." And the prosecutor; "Pausing, Green gingerly touched a boil on the back of his neck, a mature inflammation that seemed, like its angry wearer, about to burst."

There are many such descriptions. Here is one of two cats, included here because it reminded me of the scene where Holly sets her cat loose in Breakfast at Tiffanys. It also makes me wonder if it is a metaphor, and if so who or what are the cars? Are Smith and Hickock the cats or the birds, or the oncoming motorists? "Among Garden City's animals are two grey tomcats who are always together - thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinize the grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travelers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds - crows, chickadees, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists."

As the end of the book approaches, so does the untimely demise of Smith and Hickock. Their plight is expressed sympathetically. All the threat they implied early on has dissipated. It is as if they are already fading away. Smith is seen "Wearing an open-necked shirt (borrowed from Mr Meier) and blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, he looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field." Hickock? -"Hickock's uneven eyes turned towards a window in the visiting room; his face, puffy, pallid as a funeral lily, gleamed in the weak, winter sunshine filtering through the bar-shrouded glass."

At the end we are left with a sense that despite the inevitability of what unfolds before us none of it was inevitable. Chance was a major character in their drama. Small changes could have stopped it happening. Smith and Hickock drove each other on. Their accidents and upbringing contributed hugely.

If you haven't read this book do yourself a favor and do so. It is a true classic.


  1. Nice review -- I love Capote, and I completely understand the temptation to quote and quote and quote. And I'm happy to read as many quotes as you care to type in!

    Funny how that paragraph about the cats sticks in your mind; it's certainly one of the images that comes to me when I think of the book, too. I'm sure he didn't mean anything this appallingly literal, but I'll venture to suggest that the birds are the Clutters, the cars and their grilles are fate, and the cats are the press, specifically Capote himself and Harper Lee, who went to Kansas with him for the project. (Interesting that they're both tomcats; I've always wondered a bit about Harper Lee...)

    The one thing that really startled me was your mention of Capote cross-dressing. I've never run across that, though it's in his bio on Wikipedia (without attribution).

    When he died, I was surprised as I could be to find that my first reaction was "He *can't* have died! I haven't met him yet!" I didn't even know I wanted to meet him, but I missed my chance! I've read most of his work and some biographical stuff, and either never ran across mention of cross-dressing, or read it and forgot it. I don't mean to imply that I dropped it out of distaste or feeling it's unmentionable--I don't care what people wear, I just have an appallingly bad memory--but I only associate Capote and wearing dresses with Capote's part in spreading the rumor about J Edgar Hoover wearing women's clothes. I'd be interested to know where you found that item.

    I can't find my trove of Capote books at the moment, either, dammit. Maybe in a box in the shed, from the last move. Time to excavate...

    1. Hi Mef, thanks for your kind comments and also for pointing out my reliance on wikipedia for information about the private lives of authors, without any proper research. The odd thing is that I felt that this was something that I had known for years - I must look back over possible sources for my feeling this was so.
      I'll have to employ an editor for these posts!

  2. In Cold Blood along with The Executioner's Song (Norman Mailer) is up there as one of the best "True Crime" / Faction books of the 20th century. As a bit of a nerd on capital punishment (yes, there is such a person) I judge these books by their accuracy in depicting the execution chamber. Both authors got it spot on, the journalists who were there can tell us what happened but only writers like Capote and Mailer can interpret what the executees were thinking and feeling. Compare this to the execution scene in "Le Pullover Rouge" by Gilles Perrault where we are told "the severed head bounced twice". Sorry Mr Perrault but severed heads do not bounce in sawdust.