In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”. Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before the traveller reaches them.

Thus begins the most famous true crime story: In Cold Blood. Truman Capote spent six years working on this book and it’s perfect. The narrative never flags as it tells vividly as a movie how a farmer and his family were murdered in cold blood by two ex-cons in an abortive robbery attempt one night before Christmas in 1959 and how the killers were eventually arrested and hanged.

The writer starts off by describing the decent, well-off Clutter family and their River Valley Farm on what they don’t know will be the last day of their lives — and then switches over to the two ex-cons who are coming to rob them.

Dick Hickock, a small-time crook, has been told by a prison inmate who once worked for the Clutters they have a safe full of money in their house. So he decides to rob them with the help of his friend, Perry Smith The writer describes the preparations they make as they drive to the farm in a battered old car. Dick says they must leave no witnesses behind. And, by the end of the first chapter, they have killed the farmer and his invalid wife and their son and daughter.

What follows is the investigation, the horror in the local community, and an account of the lives of the two killers. Unaffacted by the killings, Dick returns to his parents’ home while Perry puts up at a hotel. A few days later they drive off to Mexico. But there they run out of money. They return to America and head back to Kansas, despite Perry’s misgivings, because Dick wants to con money out of old acquaintances. That proves their undoing. The prison inmate who told Dick about the Clutters’ safe has tipped off the authorities, who arrest them.

Perry confesses to the murders. He tells the investigators how and why they killed the farmer and his family. They found no safe, no money in the house except a few dollars. He felt angry and disgusted with himself as he scrabbled for money that fell out of the farmer’s daughter’s purse. And that drove him to murder.

Capote is a masterly writer. He knows how to draw out of his story, when to reveal which details, and is sympathetic not only to the victims and the investigators but the killers as well. Perry tells the investigators he confessed to all four murders because Dick’s mother is a good woman: he wants to spare her the pain of thinking her son is a cold-blooded killer.

Capote describes Perry’s last moments, on the scaffold, with telling economy through the investigator Al Dewey’s eyes:

Steps, noose, mask; but before the mask was adjusted, the prisoner spat his chewing gum into the chaplain’s outstretched palm. Dewey shut his eyes; he kept them shut until he heard the thud-snap that announces a rope-broken neck. Like the majority of American law-enforcement officials, Dewey was certain that capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime, and he felt if the penalty had ever been earned, the present instance was it. The preceding execution had not disturbed him, he had never much use for Hickock, who seemed to him “a small-time chiseller, who got out of his depth, empty and worthless”. But Smith, though he was the true murderer, aroused another response, for Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded that the detective could not disregard.

The book ends almost like a movie. After the executions, Dewey visits the Clutters’ graves. There he meets Susan, the best friend of the Clutters’ daughter, Nancy. Susan tells him Bobby, Nancy’s boyfriend, has got married.

“Good for Bobby.” And to tease her, Dewey added: “But how about you? You must have a lot of beaux.”

“Well. Nothing serious. But that reminds me. Do you have the time? Oh,” she cried, when he told her it was half-past four. “I’ve got to run! But it was nice to have seen you, Mr Dewey.”

“And nice to have seen you, Sue. Good luck,” he called after her as she disappeared down the path, a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining — just such a young woman as Nancy might have been.

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