CBR11 BINGO: Back to School Square BINGO BLACKOUT!!!
I don’t often re-read. I like to live in the world of a book for a bit and then move on. While there is currently a metric crap ton of books from my high school and college past staring at me from the book shelves in my house, the dust is rarely blown off one unless I am trying to foist it on my teenage son. “Here! This is a gooood book!”
I am 99.9% sure that I read “In Cold Blood” in high school, but it may have been my freshman year in college. Listen. Many, many years have transpired since those days. My worldview is far from what it was over 30 years ago. I’m in my early 50’s. Retirement and investment commercials now sport the soundtrack of my youth because I am, sadly, the target demographic. I’m also the parent of a teenage boy. The awesome responsibility of trying to help guide a decent person out into this crazy world definitely influences my perspective on life. There was no way that a re-reading of this wasn’t going to make a different impact on me now.
This novel is the father of the true crime genre and granddaddy of the all of the true crime podcasts and shows that are popular now. Many of you will have read this or seen one of the various film adaptations, so I’ll stick with the basic plot. Two recently paroled men, on a tip from a former cell mate, set out to rob a successful Kansas rancher, Herb Clutter. The promise of a safe full of money is not fulfilled and they only come away with $40-$50 and a few small items to pawn. For that small amount of cash and goods, Herb Clutter, his wife and teenage son and daughter are bound and systematically murdered one at a time by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
After reading a newspaper article about the murders, writer Truman Capote spent the next 5-ish years interviewing law enforcement, the inhabitants of Holcomb, Kansas as well as friends and family of the Clutters. He also extensively interviewed Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in prison and spoke with some of their acquaintances and family members. The result is what Capote coined a “nonfiction novel.” At the time, it was a new genre that delivered factual information with the style of a novel. The result is like walking the proverbial mile in someone else’s very uncomfortable shoes.
Capote is interested in the gray area of what most would see only in black and white: the murder of four decent law abiding citizens by two seemingly remorseless ex-cons. Through the interviews, he forms an attachment with both men, particularly Perry Smith. Both Smith and Truman Capote were abandoned by their parents, shuffled from place to place as children and lost family members to suicide.
Rather than assume the perpetrators are just “bad seed,” Capote digs into their backstory of neglect, abuse and debilitating physical injuries to reveal two intelligent but unstable men. Capote may have set out to discover who could have committed such a heinous crime, but I think he discovered, instead, how easily his life could have followed the same path.
“In Cold Blood” was written in 1965, two years before I was born and around 20 years before I read it the first time. Now reading it over 50 years after it was written, about a murder that happened 60 years ago this November, I am struck with how relevant it still is. Mental illness is still stigmatized and often found at the core of violent crime. Capote’s dissatisfaction with their legal representation as well as the state laws that prohibit the jury from hearing Smith and Hickock’s psychological assessments drive the point home.
I really can’t tell you what I thought about this book as a teenager. The gruesomeness of the crime is all that stuck with me from that reading many years ago. I’m not sure that I would have had the emotional maturity at that point in my life to experience anything much beyond sadness for the family.
Now, I found a troubling book that was a struggle for me as a reader. Senseless murder seems pervasive now. Mass murders committed by dead-eyed remorseless killers have become commonplace. Capote’s obvious empathy with Smith and Hickock was understandable given their backgrounds, but I wanted to push back a bit at Capote when he seemed to romanticize the men too much, particularly Smith. It’s hard to forget the bodies they left behind. There is definitely a lot to think about here.