“Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another.”
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I remember being gobsmacked by this book when I read it for the first time six years ago, and now upon re-read, I find it’s just as good. In fact, it’s one of those books where the satisfaction comes not from the “what” happening next, but the “how” and, perhaps more importantly, the “why.” This is still the only thing of Capote’s I’ve read, and as good a writer as he is, I’m not sure why I haven’t read anything else of his. But also, this one thing is enough to digest over years.
I grew up watching true crime on TV that was designed to titillate and horrify. Unsolved Mysteries gave me nightmares on the reg. But aside from the satisfaction of the stories themselves–the pleasure of the beginning, middle and end–there was nothing else to be found there. The story itself was the point. But In Cold Blood is different now, and at the time it was straight up revolutionary. Capote was an artist, and an obsessive one. He wanted to create the first nonfiction novel, and novels have characters, with conflicts and passions and conflicted motivations. Novels aren’t just about the story, they’ve got levels. And the levels here are what really interest me.
The Clutter family, well-liked, successful and respected, were found murdered on their Kansas farm in the fall of 1959. Their murder shook up the quiet, All-American idealistic town of Holcomb, and the two men who committed the crime, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, did so for no discernible reason. No money was taken. Neither men had prior connections to the family. Capote details the crime and its fallout, as well as the investigation. But the real heart of this book is his detailed examination of the killers, and Perry in particular.
All of this together becomes not just a portrait of the Clutter family, or of the killing and its consequences, or even the murderers and their motivations, but a portrait of small-town, idyllic America stripped forcibly of its illusions, of the men who were were shut out of that world so it could remain beautiful and pure, and learned to define themselves by the things they couldn’t have. It’s a very human book, full of compassion and understanding, and it never points a finger in just one direction, instead acknowledging the complex interplay of forces that combined in this one moment in time to make a tragedy for all involved.