Photo of Holcomb, Kansas courtesy of
I decided to read Truman Capote's 1966 book "In Cold Blood" because I have become intrigued by his close friend, Nelle Harper Lee. Lee wrote the luminous novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," which I teach every year to high school freshmen and her character Dill Harris is modeled on her childhood friend, Truman Capote. Lee, now 86 and living a private life in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, never has published another book. I wanted to know her better and I figured I might find traces of her in Capote's nonfiction novel. I haven't researched how much of her fingerprints are on this book of richly drawn characters, real people whose presence has remained with me days after finishing this book.
Capote, assisted by Lee, spent six years researching this book about the brutal murder of Herbert Clutter, a prosperous farmer, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their four children on November 15, 1959.
To enter the world of this book is to become almost haunted by its meditation on our universal humanity and the nature of evil. This book gave me vivid nightmares. The lives of its characters, particularly the Clutter family and the two men who savagely murdered them, have stayed with me in the days following my finishing the book. The richly detailed writing, published nearly half a century ago, offers a contemporary reader perspective on the violence that saturates so much of American society.
Capote manages to bring to life not only the Clutters and their neighbors and friends, but also the two men who broke into their farmhouse and slaughtered them, almost without motive and leaving behind nearly no clues. Quite moving, for example, is the description of the bedroom of teenager Nancy Clutter: "girlish, and as frothy as a ballerina's tutu. Walls, ceilings and everything else except a bureau and a writing desk, were pink or blue or white." He goes on to describe every item on her cork bulletin board, inside her dresser drawers and also her Saturday night beauty ritual, which included a cleansing and creaming ritual and carefully washing her hair.
By the time we reach these descriptions, 55 pages in, we already have been introduced to Nancy's killers and would-be rapists, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two ex-convicts on parole from the Kansas State Penitentiary. Capote weaves their story with the Cutters chapter by chapter, building a sense of familiarity with the humanity with all the characters, which serves to increase the tension leading up to their inevitable encounter on a quiet fall night with a full moon.
Capote spares no detail either in describing the lives of the two killers. We learn about their childhoods, their broken families and their broken hearts, their casual cruelty. We witness their jagged journey to evil. In fact, the chapter about Smith is the book's longest and thus the killer becomes the most developed character.
Perry had on several occasions run off, set out to find his lost father, for he had lost his mother as well, learned to 'despise' her; liquor had blurred the face, swollen the figure of the once sinewy, limber Cherokee girl, had 'soured her soul', honed her tongue to the wickedest point, so dissolved her self-respect that generally she did not bother to ask the names of the stevedores and trolley-car conductors and such persons who accepted what she offered without charge... Consequently, as Perry recalled, 'I was always thinking about Dad, hoping he could come take me away..."
At one point, near the close of the book, Hickock describes to a reporter how he witnessed another prisoner's execution by looking out his cell window. "The doors were wide open. We could see the witnesses, a lot of guards, the doctor, the warden - every damn thing but the gallows. It was off at an angle but we could see its shadow. A shadow on the wall like the shadow of a boxing ring."
As a culture, too, we Americans have become accustomed to killing prisoners. We are alone among major Western nations in still having the death penalty, a penalty which seems to have done nothing to reduce the violence. In April 1960, according to In Cold Blood, 190 persons were waiting execution. By 0ctober 2012, that number had risen to 3,146.
How infrequently I think about these prisoners and their victims. How rarely I pray for them, or meditate on the image of God in each soul.
A Christmas portrait of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. The two oldest children were adults
living in their own homes when the killings occurred.