Paroled: 8-13-59 By: So. K.C.K. Bottom Picture Smith, Perry Edward (WM) 27-59. As I write this review, I'm sitting about 60 miles from the Clutter house in Holcomb, Kansas. I usually avoid reading true crime books. In Cold Blood was required reading in many schools in this region clear up until about the 1970s, so even people who were too young to remember the crime have experienced the tragedy through Truman Capote. In the description above regarding Perry Edward Smith there is a reference to Phillips County. My Dad was a sophomore in high school in 1955 when Perry Smith decided to burglarize the Chandler Sales Company in Phillipsburg, Kansas and this seemingly insignificant act was really the beginning of this story. Perry Smith received 10 years in the Kansas Penitentiary in Leavenworth. The final piece to the puzzle that not only determined the fate of the Clutter family, but also the fates of Smith and Hickock was snapped down in place when they meet Floyd Wells. Wells, serving time for some bit of stupidity, had worked for Herb Clutter back in 1948. He told Hickock and Smith that Clutter was a wealthy farmer, and kept a safe full of cash in his house. They came back up to the United States and there was this baffling moment where Perry Smith is reading the paper and sees an article about a family that was tied up and shot to death. Some nut that read about what happened out in Kansas." WTF? How about the original coconut heads that murdered the family in Kansas? Perry does have a moment or two where he weighs what happened in Kansas. "Know what I think?" said Perry. The Clutter murders struck him as the perfect story to launch this new form of writing. Capote in the Clutter home Floyd Wells eventually comes forward and tells what he knows about the murders. Without his statement I'm pretty sure that Smith and Hickock would have gotten away with the murders. This book is legendary not only because of the heinous nature of the crime, but also because Capote was ushering in a new way to tell a story.
In Cold Blood kept me thinking that most of the recent murder mystery shows and movies were indebted to this piece of literature (that Capote probably deserved a Pulitzer for but was passed over, helas, in 1965). Note that in A Capote Reader, there is a great short essay about the making of movie In Cold Blood where Capote talks a bit about the 6 years it took him to write this masterpiece.
Writing in his relaxing southern style, Capote turns a horrid crime into a story to make the how's and whys accessible to the average American. On November 15, 1959 Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, on a tip from another inmate, brutally murdered four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. Having heard that the Clutters possessed either a safe or $10,000 cash in their home, Smith and Hickock desired this wealth for themselves so that they could live out their days in a Mexican beach resort. Capote weaves a tale by giving us the backstory of both felons as well as a picture of Holcomb and nearby Garden City, Kansas as an idyllic place to raise a family. This work lead to a new genre that brings together nonfiction and fiction in a way that history feels like a story. His research was detail oriented and allowed him to bring the story of the Clutter murders to the average American home.
I've read about Harper Lee hanging out with Capote while he put this thing together, and at times it feels like she greatly influenced how it was written. I read Helter Skelter in high school, and I remember that book starting out right from the gate with all the details of the murders before diving into the Manson family and the trial. In Cold Blood works more in reverse and saves the details for later, and my God when I got there I didn't even want to read about what happened.
Capote, with his impartial writing style, relayed facts and details in such a way as to give a complete character illustration of everyone involved: from each of the Clutters, to the investigators, lawyers, and even the murderers themselves. In the section about the Clutter family life during their final days before the murders, Capotes description of their daily routines and habits made what was to come even more troubling. After the murder takes place, as if to intensify the suspense, Capote does not immediately reveal to us exactly how or why Perry and Dick committed the crime, but instead takes us on their journey as they attempt escape through the deep South while the investigators begin to try to solve the crime. Dick, who had a seemingly normal childhood and a loving family, was in a car accident which left him with a permanent head injury. The final section of the book, from their first of many trials to their execution, presents us with the moral dilemmas surrounding the punishment of crime.
The novel was first published in 1965 and at the time this style of writing, perhaps even the template for a new genre, was fresh and new and bold.
While true crime fans might read this today and think that it sounds like your basic true crime story, at the time it was groundbreaking to detail a crime in this much detail and in a format as big as a novel. One think I found very, very interesting (view spoiler) when speaking of what criminals could do on death row in Kansas, basically everything every form of comfort, entertainment, ways to pass the time were taken away from them.
Capote looks at how the townspeople react to this. In reading this I was reminded of some of the great panoramic art works of a bygone age, works by Bosch, Breughel, in which entire towns were brought together into one wide-screen image. This is what Capote has done. Capote has an incredible gift for language.
A seminal work for the non-fiction novel and the true crime genre, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood stands apart from most of its literary descendants.
I would certainly agree that most of the other true crime novels that I have read followed almost the exact "blue print" laid out by Capote in this book. The book spends the early pages going back and forth between introducing the reader to the Clutter family and also to the two murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. I thought Capote did a superb job of allowing the reader to get to know the Clutter family (and the killers for that matter) so that impact of the actual murders would resonate more deeply. The book spends considerable time showing the effect the killings had on the Holcomb community and how different people responded to the event both postively and negatively. Lastly, Capote spends considerable time on the trial of the two killers as well as the effect the trial and its aftermath had on the people most closely involved with the case. PART 3: STEVES RANT Have the horrors of the world today really become so fucking over the top extreme that they have numbed me to the point where reading about the pre-meditated, unprovoked murder of a family of four doesnt quite have the requisite shock value to immediately cause bile to rise in the back of my throat. Sadly, when on any given day we might be hearing about some troubled teen going Columbine on his classmates because some douche bag tripped him in the lunch room or reading about some disgruntled worker deciding that the boss who fired him doesnt deserve to live and so proceeds to kill a dozen of his former co-workers because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I like and love my violent, over the top, blood-soaked books, graphic novels and even TV shows (pause for a big shout out to Dexter). We have become the world that Cormac McCarthy envisioned in No Country for Old Men and, like Sheriff Tom Bell in McCarthys novel, I think it would be impossible for the people of Capotes time to imagine the world as it is today.
Truman Capote was an American writer whose non-fiction, stories, novels and plays are recognised literary classics, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965), which he labeled a "non-fiction novel." At least 20 films and TV dramas have been produced from Capote novels, stories and screenplays. During this time, he also began his career as a writer, publishing many short stories which introduced him into a circle of literary critics.