In Cold Blood
Poor dead Bonnie Clutter appeared to a friend in a dream. “To be murdered,” she wept. “No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.” In Cold Blood is strewn with snatches of pregnant speech, with glimpses of things that grow and grow in the eye of memory. None of these particulars surpasses the grimly clinching effect of Mrs. Clutter’s dream speech.
For the still living Mrs. Clutter, moreover, the horror of being murdered herself had been triply compounded. Roped to her bed, her lips sealed with adhesive tape, she was the last of four members of her family to be despatched by two youthful intruders, entire strangers to the family, in the Clutters’ roomy farmhouse on the plains of western Kansas one moonlit night in November of 1959. At intervals she heard the gunshots—in a single instance possibly the gaspings of a slit throat as well—that announced the deaths, one by one, of her husband, her fifteen-year-old son, Kenyon, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Nancy. For some reason Nancy Clutter’s lips had been left untaped. Her head turned to the wall and away from the flashlight beamed on it, the shotgun levelled at it, she was able to plead briefly with her killers, again possibly within hearing of her mother across the hall: “Oh, no! Oh please. No! No! No! No! Don’t! Oh, please don’t! Please!” Mrs. Clutter’s turn to be flashlighted and blasted at close range came next. Was her death a deliverance that she welcomed? Among her pitying, grieving, haunted friends in the small town of Holcomb, some hoped that it was. A dim comfort glimmered in the thought.
No other comfort was at first to be found in any aspect of the seemingly inexplicable massacre of this respected, in part beloved, family. Even those natives of the place who resorted to fanciful theorizing and secret finger pointing seem to have done so out of pure fear—a fear too burdensome to find support in religious patience or rational wait-and-see. Here and there, speculation survived the very capture and conviction of the criminals. It was suggested that still darker forces and larger figures hovered in the infinitely contorted and receding backgrounds of an occurrence so monstrous itself, so unprecedented in local history, as the Clutter murder was. Up to then, Holcomb and its environs had made up a somewhat “backward” community. A degree of frontier austerity, religious and moral, persisted in those hinterland fastnesses despite all the well-filled grain elevators, the ranch-type houses, the television sets, the outdoor movies, the teen-age dating. Overnight, as it were, Holcomb had joined the mid-twentieth century. The ages, alike of faith and of rational doubt, had been quickly passed. Our time of suspicion, this sinister synthesis of faith and doubt, of fierce conviction and mad ratiocination, had been reached.
Thus is Holcomb’s brutal coming of age pictured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The picture, if I have it right, provides one of the numerous “angles” that exercise the mind as well as chilling the blood while one follows Mr. Capote’s intricately circumstantial account of the Clutter murder, its causes and aftermath. There is of course a considerable public, generally indulgent, often profitable, for books that reconstruct, whether in a wholly journalistic or a partly “fictionalized” form, one or another of the more significant criminal episodes of the recent or distant past. To the perennial, the probably aboriginal, appeal of crimes and criminals there is sometimes added a sentimental, even an ironically patriotic, motive when the given episode has occurred in the United States. From Jesse James to Loeb and Leopold, from the perpetrators of the Saint Valentine Day’s Massacre to the Lindbergh kidnapper and beyond, our celebrated delinquents have become a part of the national heritage. They figure in a sort of musée imaginaire, half Madame Tussaud’s, half Smithsonian, of American crime.
In Cold Blood is the best documentary account of an American crime ever written, partly because the crime here in question is not yet a part of the heritage. Only in the region where it took place was the Clutter murder large-scale news. Generally ignored elsewhere (there have since been so many other virtually gratuitous rampages of blood and sex), the Clutter affair has been spared the attentions of the memorialists. Its horrors, its meanings, its supposed relation to the Zeitgeist have gone unexplored. For Mr. Capote the incident is pristine material; and the book he has written about it is appropriately and impressively fresh.
But if In Cold Blood deserves highest marks among American crime histories, it also raises certain questions. What, more or less, is the narrative intended to be; and in what spirit are we supposed to take it? While the book “reads” like excellent fiction, it purports to be strictly factual and thoroughly documented. But the documentation is, for the most part, suppressed in the text—presumably in order to supply the narrative with a surface of persuasive immediacy and impenetrable omniscience. Nor are the author’s claims to veracity set forth in any detail elsewhere in the volume. They are merely asserted in a brief introductory paragraph wherein his indebtedness to several authorities ranging from the Kansas police to William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, is acknowledged. With all respect to the author, how can anyone be sure that the book’s numerous angles, including Mrs. Clutter’s dream speech and the social portrait of Holcomb, are in any reasonable degree authentic? To ask such questions of a book that is otherwise so praiseworthy may be captious; but to praise without asking is foolish. For these are years not only of neurotic suspiciousness but of much that is really, and grossly, suspect, in art as in politics. As the present writer has at times felt obliged to remark in print, a lot of what passes for sociological observation is only private fantasy, the pulse not to the patient but of the hypochondriac healer at the bedside. “Parajournalism” is Dwight Macdonald’s perhaps too glamorous-sounding term for this “creative” reportage or social criticism. And parajournalism is detestable because, to the many real crises that now lurk and loom, it adds another and quite unnecessary one, a crisis of literary truthfulness.
I am myself convinced that In Cold Blood is not parajournalism. Its general authenticity is established, for me, by what I hope to show is a species of internal evidence. I do nevertheless wish that Mr. Capote had gone to the trouble of taking us into his confidence—perhaps by way of an appendix explaining his procedures—instead of covering his tracks as an interviewer and researcher, and of generally seeming to declaim, with Walt Whitman in one of his seizures of mystical clairvoyance, “I am there…I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen.” A journalist turned poet, Whitman went on to write what was unmistakeably poetry, so far, at least, as its frankly visionary immersion in man’s total experience was concerned. At present, all reportorial writing aspires to the condition of poetry, or of myth or—in the still more abused word—of “story.” In Cold Blood’s similar aspirations are, as I say, largely justified by its unique excellence. Meanwhile, the questions have proliferated, mostly in conversation, since last autumn, when the work appeared serially in The New Yorker.
Some of these questions had to do with documentation. Others were more intangible, “personal,” and, as I now think, impertinent. Given, for example, the preoccupations of Capote’s early fiction, its nostalgia for states of innocence together with its fascination with deformed or precocious or oddball types of human creepiness (that Miss Bobbitt in “Children on Their Birthdays”! That New York City dream collector in “Master Misery”!)—given, in short, Capote’s repertory of fictional themes, to what extent did he impose it upon the actualities of the Clutter case, “identifying” with one or another of the figures in the case and distorting this or that situation? In their original form such speculations have, as I say, proved to be mostly irrelevant. But they were not without justification if one considers Capote’s seeming possessiveness towards his subject, his determination to make the subject his very own, to the point of refusing to share with the public the means by which he has done so.
Perhaps his reportorial activities, which I understand were arduous and prolonged, are another story, to be made public later, like Gide’s Journal of “The Counterfeiters.” Meanwhile Mr. Capote, interviewed by a New York Times reporter, has suggested further reasons for his suppressing documentatation. The book, he says, is an attempt at what is in effect a new genre, the “non-fiction novel.” To this claim the only possible retort is a disbelieving grin. The book chills the blood and exercises the intelligence just because it reports, without much novelistic comment or simplification, what one is persuaded really and horribly happened. Nor do “genres” as such really matter; certain of anyone’s favorite books—A Sentimental Journey, Walden—are sui generis. If anything, Capote has perfected an old form of journalism and done so by virtue of qualities peculiar to his subject and to himself. Not the book’s admirable essence but its glittering aureole of fame achieved and money made in heaps is what is likely to attract imitators.
Whatever its “genre,” In Cold Blood is admirable: as harrowing as it is, ultimately, though implicitly, reflective in temper. Capote’s possessiveness towards his subject is understandable in terms of the industry, intelligence, and passion he has brought to the book’s making. One’s belief in its merits deepens on re-reading In Cold Blood in its present form as a volume. Indeed the book has the special merit of requiring, and repaying, thoughful attention even while it tempts one to devour its contents with uninterrupted excitement. Many of the original questions are effectively answered, and the speculations silenced, by re-reading the work in all its astonishing abundance of provocative detail.
This abundance flows chiefly from two circumstances: the character of the two criminals and the nature of Capote’s participation in the proceedings. To speak first of the criminals: one of them, Richard Hickock, combined a high IQ and a gift of almost total recall with a marked deficiency of imagination and feeling. The other, Perry Smith, had imagination and feeling in fearful and wonderful plenitude. Smith was a disappointed poète maudit. Repeatedly he dreamed or day-dreamed of vague paradises, of great winged creatures that did injury to others in return for the injuries done to him. He cherished writing of any kind, his own or that of others, so long as it applied directly or indirectly to himself. To his partner’s annoyance he packed almost everywhere with them his boxes of old letters and other documents. In effect this bulky, messy, assorted archive was at once an apologia and a guarantee of identity for this man who in his thirty fugitive years had led several rather different lives and been as many varying selves. So the archive, or some part of it, went with them to Miami, to Mexico, across the deserts of the American West, into the bars or motels where the two men took shelter, into a car which, as hitchhikers, they planned (and failed) to make off with after doing in the driver. In the end, of course, this background material, together with the foreground material supplied by their confessions, formed part of the court record and hence came to Mr. Capote’s knowledge.
Factually speaking, what Smith remembered about the crime itself and about their subsequent wanderings was less extensive than Hickock’s memories. But the recollections of both were in substantial agreement. Naturally Smith’s memories included things that escaped Hickock’s less impressionable mind or that didn’t concern him. Among them were the brutality and neglect to which Smith had been subjected as a child, the suicides of a sister, a brother, and the brother’s wife. Among his memories, too, was the far-off presence of a second sister, Bobo, and her success, thus far, in eluding the family curse. Bobo had acquired a respectable husband, three children, a house and home. This good fortune on her part seems to have made Perry despise Bobo in proportion as he envied her. It made him express a strange wish concerning her, express it repeatedly and almost to the end—he and Hickock remained quite unrepentant during their trial and the long years they spent in the death house of the Kansas State Penitentiary until, in April of last year, their original sentence of death by hanging was finally carried out—Smith wished that his sister Bobo had been present that night in the Clutters’ house. In his mind, obviously, her precarious respectability got connected with the manifest respectability of the Clutters. On first seeing their large farmhouse and extensive grounds by moonlight, he thought them “sort of too impressive”; and he almost succeeded in convincing Hickock and himself to abandon the “score,” as Hickock called the felonious job they had undertaken.
No doubt Smith’s voluble confessions to the police and, one gathers, his conversations with Capote, contributed much to the abundance of circumstantiality that characterizes In Cold Blood. Inevitably they also awoke in Capote, as surely they must in almost any reader, a kind of sick compassion and wonder. That so much suffering could be taken and given by a single youthful human creature is a fact that unsettles the intelligence and works with desperate confusion upon the emotions, especially when one comes to know the creature as intimately as one does Perry Smith in the pages of In Cold Blood. A half-breed and, virtually, an orphan like the fictional Joe Christmas of Faulkner’s Light in August, Perry Smith has exactly what Faulkner’s killer lacks, a personality.
Does, then, the author seem to identify himself with this particular specimen of human oddness, who is even short-legged like several of Capote’s early characters? Beyond a point, definitely not. Any such sentimental conjunction of egos or alter-egos is precluded by what is gradually revealed about Perry Smith in and between the lines of the book. Smith’s excess of imagination and feeling was his undoing and that of the Clutters. It was his blandishments, as contrasted with Dick’s bullying, that reassured the Clutters as to the probable intentions of the two intruders, and caused the Clutters to go to their deaths without resistance, perilous as resistance must have been in any case. Perry’s will to deceive—perhaps to deceive himself—was matched by the Clutters’ will to believe, which in turn sprang from simple shock and fear. Moreover, it was Perry who, after thwarting Hickock’s intention of raping Nancy, sat down at her bedside for a pleasant chat about horses, which she loved, and other innocent things. It was Perry who thought Mr. Clutter a nice gentleman at the very moment that he put the knife to Mr. Clutter’s throat. Finally, it was Perry who pillowed his victims, tucked them in their beds, or otherwise made them as comfortable as possible, considering that he had also used his ex-seaman’s skill to tie them up and that he was soon to slaughter them, one by one. That Pal Perry is no Pal Joey, and thus a projection of the author’s fears or desires concerning himself, becomes certain, if only because the facts, again, make it impossible. Perry Smith is a heel to end all the heels in modern American fiction.
Not that the slaughter itself was a foregone conclusion. True, “no witnesses” had been Hickock’s slogan from the start. But during their four-hundred mile drive to Holcomb, Smith had thought of avoiding detection by masking their faces with women’s stockings—black ones. Their attempts to secure these unfashionable articles failed, and the whole stocking-hunt forms one of the more grotesque elements in the wonderful configuration of choices and chances, identities within differences, appearances and realities, which shows everywhere in Capote’s narrative.
Between Hickock and Smith, tensions developed during their lengthy occupation of the Clutters’ house. Besides keeping Hickock away from Nancy, Smith annoyed him by crediting Mr. Clutter’s insistence that there really was no safe in the house. Dick, on the other hand, kept searching for the safe, his whole “score,” and the self-esteem that went with it, being at stake for him. Except for these tensions, they might have left the Clutters tied up and unharmed, making their escape with the small portable radio, the pair of binoculars, and the fifty-odd dollars in cash they did find and take. But something, or everything together, awoke in Perry Smith an hallucinated state of mind. He took leave, not merely of his senses, but of his very self, amorphous as it was at best. He was suddenly someone else, the observer of a scene in which his other self was fated to act out its essential impulses. The cutting of Mr. Clutter’s throat confirmed Perry’s sense of his doubleness. By this act of gratuitous violence, this former petty thief, and, like Dick, parolee from the state prison, became what he had earlier dreamed about and bragged about being, a killer, the avenging bird.
Here, then, is some of the internal evidence (or my version of it) that persuades me In Cold Blood is to be read as fact, its author’s claims to the contrary. Even the propriety of his including Bonnie Clutter’s dream speech is thus established, apart from its great dramatic value. He got it, directly or indirectly, from the dreamer herself, an acquaintance of Mrs. Clutter’s and the wife of the local police investigator whose involvement in the case was urgent throughout. Similarly with the portrait of Holcomb and its environs. This is as convincing as any such sociological panorama is ever likely to be, especially because of the presence in it of other, somewhat more worldly, “enclaves” beyond the Clutter circle, which is strictly Methodist, Republican, temperance, and 4-H Club. Within and roundabout the Clutter group itself there are also significant differences, despite the seeming harmony. Unlike the others, Bonnie Clutter is a “mental,” a partial recluse, subject to bad “spells,” convinced that she is unneeded in her generally extroverted family, and given to guilt-stricken gestures and monologues. Then there is Bobby Rupp, the neighbor boy whose teen-age romance with Nancy Clutter has been firmly discouraged by her father because the Rupps are Catholic. Indeed, suspicion fixes, unofficially and briefly, on Bonnie Clutter herself; while Rupp is promptly submitted by the police to the formalities of an interrogation. Thus do those grotesquely opposite numbers, the stranger and the friend, the normal and abnormal, the killer and the killed, shade into one another.
As for Capote’s part in the proceedings, these consisted in his making himself so thoroughly familiar with the circumstances and the surviving people involved that he was able to feel himself almost a participant and to make the reader feel a participant also. Thus the various possible clues and suspects are introduced, not with the mechanical trickery of a detective story, but as they might have been dreamed up by the natives or pursued by the police from day to day on the spot. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we are made aware of Hickock and Smith, parolees on the loose, meeting at distant Olanthe, Kansas, consuming their root beers and aspirins, or vodka orange blossoms, planning the job in their shrewd but half-baked way, and starting on the long drive to the isolated farmhouse which neither of them has ever seen, which only Hickock has heard about, from a former cellmate who, several years earlier, had been one of Mr. Clutter’s field workers, and whose account of the Clutter setup included a money-filled safe which isn’t, and never was, there.
In short, Capote has it both ways, the mystification and the clarification. And the narrative evolves through a succession of firmly written scenes—scenes that are occasionally, I think, too slickly executed and that end with too obtrusive “curtains.” These, unfortunately, embrace a concluding graveyard scene where the weather and the sentiment—Life Goes On—are unmitigated Hollywood.
But no known film maker could easily convey in his medium that elusive interplay of the gratuitous and the determinate which makes In Cold Blood at its best both artful and lifelike. True, Perry Smith, although thoroughly individualized, is also a clinically perfect type of the misfit turned psychopath and the psychopath turned killer. But his partner? Nothing in Hickock’s antecedents accounts for his becoming a criminal on this scale of brutal incorsequence. In so far as the crime has a definable and possibly remedial cause, it lies in the nature of prisons, the kind of mentalities and associations apt to be fostered by prisons. For the rest the cause is something in the relationship of Smith and Hickock, a relationship so involuted and internal that it can be made believable, as Capote does make it, not through any of the usual formulas of partnership or palship, but solely in the shifting minutiae of their behavior from incident to incident. How, moreover, to represent in any medium less flexible than Capote’s, other significant relationships? For example, that of Mrs. Clutter and her daughter, the mother who feels herself displaced and the daughter who, in all apparent humility and sweetness, has filled her place? Or that of the two principal fathers, Nancy Clutter’s and Perry Smith’s, who never of course meet but who are, each in his own place, Kansas and Alaska, and in his own way, embodiments of free enterprise and the pioneering spirit?
Until now, Truman Capote’s literary record has been somewhat uneven. A series of well-written, never quite negligible, passes at literature has made it up. At last, in a small Kansas town disrupted by a peculiarly horrible and bewildering crime, he seems to have found, for a time, a sort of spiritual home, complete with a lovable police force. At least he discovered there a subject equal to his abilities. These appear to have required that he profess, and no doubt sincerely believe, that he was composing a non-fiction novel. In a way, Capote’s claim is the more believable because it perpetuates, by inversion, an ancient literary impulse: the impulse of romancers to create a fiction within a fiction. The tale twice told of Cervantes or of Hawthorne, the story shaped within the consciousness of some imaginary observer (Henry James and others), are of this tradition. Capote’s inversion of the tradition is itself a striking response to the present-day world and to the tendency noted earlier in this review: the tendency among writers to resort to subjective sociology, on the one hand, or to super-creative reportage, on the other. As Lionel Trilling once observed, it is no longer poetry but history, preposterous current history, which beggars the literary imagination and requires us to attempt a “willing suspension of disbelief.” But it is surely to Capote’s credit that one cannot quite suspend one’s disbelief that In Cold Blood is a novel.