Considered a classic of the ‘true crime’ genre. In Cold Blood is a compelling and chilling read about a mass murder that combined a detached journalistic tone with literary flourish.
The book was originally published in 1966, but I read the very pretty Penguin Essentials version. I picked it up for three quid from the absolutely excellent Camden Lock Books which is based in Old Street Tube Station (on the Northern Line, two stops down from King’s Cross and three from Euston) in London. This is a great little independent bookshop that I visit pretty regularly since my partner lives about five minutes from Old Street Station. Whenever I am going back North by train I always stop in and check out their bargain table, which is piled high with great books for very good prices. They also have a remarkably wide selection of normally-priced books. If you’re in the area I can’t recommend these guys enough.
Anyway, back to In Cold Blood. The book is focused upon an event – the murder of wealthy Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife and two of their children in 1959. The main ‘characters’ are their two killers – Dick Hicock and Perry Smith – who were extensively interviewed by Capote at the time. The book uses these interviews to trace the peculiar exploits of these two men as they plan, execute (no pun intended), and flee from the consequences of their terrible crime.
Clutter and his family barely feature as people themselves, rather they are the ever present victims and instead much of the book is a semi-fictionalised account of what the murderers did after the killing. I say semi-fictionalised because Capote makes it into a narrative presumably based his conversations with Hicock and Smith whilst they were in prison waiting for their executions. Capote’s portrayal of the killers is nuanced and sympathetic, no small feat given the horrendous nature of their crimes. More than anyone else in the book, their wretched lives and backstories are illustrated in great detail. The book charts their first meetings in prison, the forming of a tentative masterplan to get rich quick, the deed itself, and the subsequent evasion of the authorities and series of blunders that led to their capture and arrest. Criminal masterminds these two certainly weren’t.
Another thing Capote does very well is to illustrate the idiosyncracies of rural Kansas life in the 1950s. The small town feel of Garden City and its environs really leapt from the page. He traces the impact the massacre had upon the local community, and how that impinged upon the trial of the killers. Some of the local characters – such as the ornery old postmistress – bring a real sense of depth to a community bowled over by the shock of such a terrible crime. Capote also spends a good deal of time focusing on Al Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent tasked with tracking down the killers. Thus the narrative shifts around from killers, to cops, to community throughout.
In the final stages of the book, the narrative moves to consider the nature of the crime. This is, to an extent, coming back to the title to consider how someone could have committed a crime ‘In Cold Blood’. After all, the story of the crime itself is incredibly tragic – the two men intended to rob Clutter, having thought he was a wealthy man and would have a full safe at his house. As it was Clutter, though wealthy, rarely used cash, so the killers ended up with around five dollars (stolen from the Clutter’s daughter) and a radio to be pawned. The narrative seems to suggest that the killers were foolish rather than psychopathic (though there were clearly mental health issues with both – as Capote details). Though this, of course, does not excuse what they did – the wholesale trussing up and slaughter of an innocent family with shotguns at point-blank range.
In conclusion, ‘In Cold Blood’ is a gripping read. Capote combines a (good) journalist’s relatively dispassionate precise recollection of the facts with a literary flourish that turns what would otherwise be an extended report on a crime into a story about the event and its consequences, about the men who perpetrated it and the miserable lives they led, about the hunt for the killers, their capture, trial and stay on Death Row. It is a vision of the dark underbelly of America. The slaying of a farmer and his family presaging the death in the 1950s of a particular version of that nebulous concept – the American dream – which would be torn apart in the social and cultural upheavals of subsequent decades.
I will give this the full five ‘black diamond suit’s ♦♦♦♦♦