In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published in 1966, and is based on events that happened almost fifty years ago. The events were real. This is not a work of fiction. The Clutters, an appropriately surnamed Kansas family, have their own complications within their rambling homestead. What family doesn’t? Clutter the father is a farmer. Who isn’t in these parts? Life is not so productive of late. Whose is? The two younger children, a daughter and a son, still live in. The others have left, happily.
And then, in November 1959, the four Clutters are found gagged, apart from the mother, all with their throats cut and their brains blown out by shotgun fire. The community is in turmoil. No one can explain why anyone might have wanted to kill a whole family in Holcomb, a small, poor, rural community in the mid-West Bible belt.
Hickock (Hicock) and Smith are two men on the move. Their families might be dysfunctional. Their socialisation might have been lacking. For whatever reason, individually and collectively they prey on others, prey in a way that renders them culpable, detectable and ultimately punishable. They know thieving is wrong. So, one of them says, we’ve stolen lives, so it must be serious. It was the two of them that pulled the trigger, that blew brains out, that slit throats, that did not quite commit rape. There are limits. And all for forty dollars and a transistor radio.
I give nothing of this book away when I reveal that the two men did commit the murders — exactly how no-one ever admitted — and that, after years of litigious wrangling, both were hanged. The strength of In Cold Blood is not what happens, but how it happens.
Truman Capote offers us a vast book in just four sustained chapters, each of which is sub-divided as the narrative shifts between aspects of the different individuals' lives. Throughout, the style is much more complex than mere journalism, but the clarity with which it communicates is at times breathtaking. We hear from those directly involved, both victims and perpetrators, their families, the police, the judiciary, the neighbours, the lawyers, the passers-by, the acquaintances, the cellmates. The detail is forensic.
It is essential that the reader is constantly reminded that this is not fiction. Truman Capote offers dialogue where a journalist would report, offers interpretation where an historian would defer, offers opinion where an observer might decline. And so In Cold Blood becomes and absorbing, multi-faceted, mid-twentieth century reworking of Crime And Punishment. The crucial difference that the intervening years have generated is that where the latter concentrated on the individual circumstances and motives of the perpetrator, In Cold Blood explores the social and the contextual alongside the psychological.
And this is where the book becomes deeply disturbing, because it seems to suggest that the individuality that contemporary society seems to demand of us might itself promote a degree of self-centredness, of selfishness, perhaps, that might give rise to nothing less than contempt for others. In the 40 years since the publication of In Cold Blood, it could be argued that such pressures might have increased. Frightening, indeed.Powered by Sidelines