By James Martin
Non-fiction novel by Truman Capote from 1966 In cold blood details the 1959 murders of the four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote crafts his journalistic style expertly, building his complex narrative structure and multiplicity of perspectives with careful attention.
Capote begins his story by describing Holcomb, an unremarkable town that will soon rise from obscurity to international notoriety. An “electrical sign” proclaiming “DANCE” remains dark, while the “irrelevant sign” for Holcomb Bank is inscribed “in chipped gold”; a visual representation of the wealth and vitality that gradually flows from the rural town. The “dirty window” on which the sign is placed symbolically reinforces Holcomb’s negligence and foreshadows the monstrous crimes that will forever tarnish his bucolic innocence.
Subsequently, the omniscient third-person narrator takes us back and forth between the Clutter family and their murderers: Dick Hickock (on the left in the photo) and Perry Smith (on the right). Capote’s portrayal of serial killers is provocatively sympathetic, forcing us to reconcile their moral repugnance with their chilling human vulnerability. We can’t help but feel sorry for Perry, a smart but flawed “dictionary lover” with few possessions and no family or friends he can really rely on. Capote’s portrayal of Dick is somewhat less sympathetic; but we still come to appreciate his “pragmatic approach to every subject,” his seductive charm, and his “authentically tough” personality.
The tension is accelerating as the geographical scale contracts. Dick and Perry drive closer and closer to Holcomb in their ‘black 1949 Chevrolet sedan’, finally arriving in the early hours of November 15and, 1959. However, Capote never fully satisfies the narrative climax it engenders, jumping back in time until the discovery of the bodies the next morning. Time continues to move forward as the Kansas Bureau of Investigation rolls back, slowly uncovering the true horror of the night’s events. Capote’s all-seeing narrator refuses to satiate our inconsiderate, fetishistic desire for edification, limiting our view of events to the partially blinded, retrospective lens of law enforcement. As Perry later remarks, ‘[People] just want to have fun. Listen to all the morbid details from the killer’s mouth.
Dick and Perry are eventually arrested by the authorities, brought back to Kansas, and hanged after five years on death row. However, Capote again denies his reader the cathartic release he anticipates in the narrative’s resolution. Deep within the reprehensibility of the two murderers, there remains an inextinguishable glimmer of humanity that complicates our desire for retributive justice. Dick shakes hands with the officers responsible for his capture and sentencing with a “most charming smile”, remarking: “You send me to a better world than ever”. Perry, with “the aura of an exiled animal, of a wounded walking creature”, reiterates in his last words his regret for the crimes he has committed: “It would make no sense to apologize for what I have done”. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize’. After Perry’s execution, lead investigator Al Dewey opens his eyes and looks up not to see the corpse of someone who deserved to die; but a ‘dwarf boy-man’, with ‘child’s feet, leaning, dangling’.
Capote’s story ends with Dewey reminiscing about his visit to the Clutter family graves a year earlier. There he meets Sue Kidwell, Nancy Clutter’s best friend, imagining her as “as young a woman as Nancy could have been.” Dewey returns home, reflecting on the tragedy that has occurred as voices whisper on the wind.
Capote’s journalistic style is poignant and compelling, deftly manipulating time boundaries and seamlessly weaving a powerful emotional narrative into his factual reconstruction of events. In cold blood demonstrates that journalism is much more than the prosaic regurgitation of facts; it is a poetic art whose aim is not only to say, but to inform. Indeed, a story is made truly memorable not by the events it describes, but by the art of its construction.
Image: Andrew Neel via Unsplash