I’m not sure how or when I first heard about In Cold Blood – or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for that matter – but I feel like I’ve been aware of Truman Capote’s books for quite a while, but not what they were about. I attended a seminar last year on Beautiful Books and The Folio Society talked a little bit about their edition. I learned that it was the first non-fiction novel and this had me intrigued, so I spontaneously bought a Penguin Classics copy during a trip to Daunt Books earlier this year.
In Cold Blood is the incredible account of the brutal 1959 murder of Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie and his two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. Young Perry Smith and Dick Hickock murdered the family in the Clutter family home in Holcomb, Kansas.
It was quick to see why In Cold Blood is hailed as a masterpiece of American literature; Truman Capote goes into an impressive amount of detail. We learn about the history of the Clutter family, as well as Perry and Dick, the murder itself, the aftermath – the facts – as well as the human element, such as neighbours’ fears that the murderer was among them and how Nancy Clutter met her boyfriend – in a way you would not find in a newspaper article or report. By the time you come to the part where the murdered is committed, you already know the Clutter family – and their murderers – quite well. It took 7 years for Truman Capote to write the book, which was published after the two men were executed. So what I really wanted to know was: What sort of person could kill an entire family? I’m not sure whether I expected to understand Perry and Dick’s motivation for murder, or whether I was merely curious, but suffice to say, once I had finished the book, I still was none the wiser: the Clutter family were murdered for a petty $40-50.
Yet Perry Smith and Dick Hickock are portrayed as two fairly normal men (for the most part!) throughout the book, which is what is most unnerving and why I think In Cold Blood had such an impact. I noticed that Perry came cross as the ‘nicer’ of the two, a man who enjoys books and art, and most remorseful (‘There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did.‘), especially when compared to Dick, who came across as extremely wicked and reprehensible – he would enjoy running over a stray dog on the road. I discovered after finishing the book that Truman Capote, while conducting interviews, eventually befriended Perry and strangely enough, I can imagine how. It’s easy to forget that you are reading about a true crime because the case is so vividly, and humanly, portrayed.
In Cold Blood is a fascinating, compelling and accomplished book – you will not have read anything like it.
Published: 2000, originally 1966
Publisher: Penguin Classics