In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (Random House, 1965)
In Cold Blood is, quite simply, the grand-daddy of true crime writing, dubbed by Capote, himself, as the first non-fiction novel (although Norman Mailer argued the point when he published The Executioner's Song in 1979.) The conditions under which I read In Cold Blood for the first time were pretty weird, which was another reason why the book has held such power over me.
I grew up in the sleepy, safe-haven of Highland Park. My family lived three blocks from the Raritan River, three blocks from Raritan Avenue, the main street in town, and one block from our local synagogue. My best friend, Betsy lived next door to me, and my dear friend, Elihu, lived a couple of houses down on the other side of the street.
On a bitter cold Saturday in February of 1965 an unforgettable drama unfolded on the front lawn of our home. An ambulance had been parked outside of Elihu's house for over an hour, which we found odd. Elihu's father came rumbling down the street in his old woody station wagon, and suddenly he was banging his fists on the car screaming, “Oh my God! She was my wife! She was my wife!” Within a short time of that moment we learned that Elihu's mother and sister had been stabbed to death in their home. No money or jewelry was taken; there was no sexual assault. In fact, no motive has been established ever for the crime, and no one was ever caught and punished for it. The Rubenstein murders shattered the illusion of peace and safety that we had in our borough and nothing ever felt quite the same again.
As a result of my standing outside our house for hours in the cold, I came down with pneumonia and was out of school for a month. Already an avid reader, my father bought me the same copy of In Cold Blood that I take off my shelf and re-read every few years, just to see if it's as well written as I remember, and it never disappoints me. I rested on the couch in our living room, reading Capote's masterpiece about murder in a small farming community and quaked every afternoon when I was left alone as my parents went to work. The book is a frightening reminder that no matter how safe we feel, we may not be.
Capote had it in mind to try a “non-fiction” novel in the mid-1950s, but he was waiting for the right story to come along. One day he caught a blurb in the New York Time, about a family of four, shot-gunned to death in the rural community of Holcomb, Kansas. He thought that this might be the story that he had been looking for to create his true crime book. He called his best friend, Harper Lee, (yes, the one who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird) and asked her to accompany him by train from New York to Holcomb, where he was to spend the next seven years of his life, observing and interviewing the people of the town, and ultimately, the two killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Capote managed to develop close relationships with many of the people who appear in the story, and he never took notes during an interview. As a writer, I always found his process fascinating. He did not tape-record nor write down anything that was said to him until he returned to his motel room, where he then took notes.
Although his publisher was clamoring for the book to be finished seven years later, in 1966, Capote insisted that he wait for the final chapter to be written in real life, the executions of Smith and Hickock in the Kansas State penitentiary. Having formed a rather close bond with Perry Smith over the years that he was able to visit and interview him, Capote was deeply shaken when he attended the executions. In fact, Capote admitted that he was never the same after witnessing the hangings of the two cold-blooded killers.
The book is so neatly done, divided into four crisp parts: The Last to See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and the Corner. Capote's language is simple, sparse, yet hauntingly descriptive. Some of the imagery that he uses has stayed with me always, particularly the description of the four members of the Clutter family as they were viewed in their caskets at the funeral home.
Capote writes, “The four coffins, which quite filled the small, flower-crowded parlor, were to be sealed at the funeral services---very understandably, for despite the care taken with the appearance of the victims, the effect achieved was disquieting. Nancy wore her dress of cherry-red velvet, her brother a bright plaid shirt; the parents were more sedately attired, Mr. Clutter in navy-blue flannel, his wife in navy-blue crepe; and---it was this, especially that lent the scene an awful aura---the head of each was completely encased in cotton, a swollen cocoon twice the size of an ordinary blown-up balloon, and the cotton, because it had been sprayed with a glossy substance, twinkled like Christmas-tree snow.” (p.95)
What is particularly disquieting about Capote's description of the dead family, is that most of Part I of the book establishes the characters of the four members of the Clutter family who were killed in the middle of the night in their home. Mr. Clutter, in his mid-forties, was a kind man, considered a pillar of the community. Generous to those who worked on his farm and to his neighbors, he was respected and revered as a religious man. His wife, Bonnie, suffered from some form of depression, which kept her secluded from family and friends. She spent her days staring out of her bedroom window, withdrawn from the happy lives of those around her. Nancy, a sixteen year old extrovert, served as a role model to children in the community, taking time to teach a little girl how to bake a cherry pie just hours before the teen was shot in her bed. Nancy loved her big old work horse named Babe, her best friend, Susan Kidwell, and her boyfriend, Bobby Rupp. The last member of the family to be shot was Kenyon, the only Clutter son, a shy boy who was good with his hands, and very near sighted. Two older daughters were not living on the Clutter farm at the time of the murders, so they did survive.
In fewer than 100 pages, Capote breathes life back into the four victims as the reader relives the events of the last day of their lives. Now dead nearly sixty years, every time I read this book, I am awed by how alive the Clutters seem to me through the way Capote depicts them. I can visualize their last good day, and the terrorizing moments at the end of their lives when Smith and Hickock walked into their house with the purpose of robbing and “blasting hair all over them walls.”
Although Hickock had had a tip from a former cell mate named Floyd Wells that Mr. Clutter kept a safe with lots of money in it, nothing could have been further from the truth. Once Hickock realized that he had been duped by Wells after a thorough search of the Clutter home for the safe, he flew into a violent rage.
But it is Perry Smith's confession to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that the reader learns the true depravity of the crime. He reveals, “Dick sood guard outside the bathroom door while I reconnoitered. I frisked the girl's room, and I found a little purse---like a doll's purse. Inside it was a silver dollar. I dropped it somehow, and it rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, and all his talk about a rich man's safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child's silver dollar. One dollar. And I'm crawling on my belly to get it.” (p.240)
The other thing that Capote does so well in the book is that he fully develops the backgrounds and tragedies that shaped the characters of Smith and Hickock so that although we know that they are monsters, we understand their human frailties and why they take the violent actions that they do in the story. We realize the full impact of how learning of their violent actions will shame their families forever, and most importantly Capote reveals that a Smith or a Hickock acting alone would never had had the audacity to commit the crime, but the combination of their two dysfuctional lives would end in spontaneous combustion that would take the lives of the four Clutters, as well as their own in a cold, lonely Kansas warehouse at the end of swinging ropes, their necks broken.
If you have never read In Cold Blood, it is still easily available in book stores, an ever popular classic in crime lore. This is a book that is impossible to put down as you read, and it will linger with you long after the last page is finished. It, in fact, has lingered with me since my teen years, an unforgettable story of enormous tragedy for the victims as well as the cold-blooded killers.