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Then and Now: In Cold Blood Revisited

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

Now it is a matter of memory, but then it was an experience. Not simply a memorable event, but an experience lived in and through and worth remembering, one of those rare occurences which, even after all is said and done, modified and revised by time, can be said to have changed things.

In my house, which is, among other things, a hopeless clutter and chaos of books, placed in no known or discernible order, I can go directly to it, no groping and searching, and lift Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, hardcover, first printing, off the shelf. Partly this is because of the unusual book jacket (slightly torn and frayed since 1965) consisting of nothing but words: title and author on front and spine; on the back, “Books by Truman Capote,” a list of his nine published titles at that time, including this one. No blurbs, no photograph, fore or aft. On the end flap, “About the Author,” we learn Capote’s date of birth—September 30, 1924; that his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, “was an international literary success and established the author in the first rank of contemporary writers—a position he has since sustained with additional novels and short stories, as well as his widely praised experiments in the field of reportage.” The copy goes on to claim that this new book “represents the culmination of his long-standing desire to make a contribution toward the establishment of a serious new literary form: the Non-fiction Novel.”

In an essay review written at the time, I quibbled with that claim, reminding other readers and myself of e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room, of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, and A Moveable Feast, of the whole line of books descending from Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. And at that moment I had ignored, and will not again, the major contribution to the form, Shelby Foote’s magnificent achievement, The Civil War: A Narrative, which, by 1963, was two-thirds done, with the first two volumes in print. All of which only suggests that other writers had thought and were thinking at the same time in the same way—that, somehow, the traditional novel, as it came to them and was practiced, did not have the ways and means to deal honestly and artistically with large events of the past or with the mad reality of our own times, with what Capote described in an interview as “desperate, savage, violent America in collision with sane, safe, insular even smug America— people who have every chance against people who have none.” The real world was, they thought, too wild for fiction, but the hard facts of it could be tamed and arranged in a narrative form, what Tom Wolfe would later call “the New Journalism.”

The front flap of the jacket is equally spare and unusual, then or now. Title and subtitle, “A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.” The text, a little over 100 words, deserves to be quoted in full:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime and there were almost no clues.

Five years, four months and twenty-nine days later, on April 14, 1965, Richard Eugene Hitchcock, aged thirty-three, and Perry Edward Smith, aged thirty-six, were hanged on a gallows in a warehouse in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas.

In Cold Blood is the story of the lives and deaths of these six people. It has already been hailed as a masterpiece.

All but the final sentence is made up of bare facts and numbers, might as well be a newspaper account, surprising in its flat tone (only the word “savagely” is an adverbial judgment call) and perhaps surprising in that it might seem to eliminate some of the suspense of the story. We are told what happened to the six principals before opening the book or reading a page.

But we knew that anyway. The last statement on the jacket is factual also. This book had been serialized in The New Yorker with great success. In his “Acknowledgements” Capote thanks “Mr. William Shawn of The New Yorker, who encouraged me to undertake this project, and whose judgment stood me in good stead from first to last.”

I remember that, remember, after the first chunk of it appeared, waiting eagerly for the next issue of The New Yorker. People talked about it with excitement in the way that people only talk about good new movies nowdays. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book. Didn’t wait too long, either, to have acquired an expensive ($5.95) hardcover of the first printing. Waiting around for it we read all about Capote and the new book in all the magazines. I’ll never forget the big spread in Life magazine where Capote, calm and matter-of-fact, allowed: “The book will be a classic.” And in any case it was a huge and instantaneous success, a bestseller, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection (more important then than now); paperback rights were sold for an enormous sum; movie rights were promptly purchased.

It’s true, Capote had enjoyed a good measure of literary fame and success ever since the appearance of Other Voices, Other Rooms; but this was a great leap, a grande jete into popular success. Fame became celebrity. Then that celebrity was at once confirmed and flaunted in 1967 by a party at the Plaza Hotel—”The Party,” Gloria Steinem named it in Vogue magazine, “a great masked ball that would bring guests from Europe and Asia, not to mention Kansas, California, and Harlem”—to which Capote invited 540 people, enough of them celebrities to be called (again by Gloria Steinem) “a new Four Hundred of the World.”

What else about the book itself? It is a very handsomely made and designed book, beautifully printed on the best paper and with a rare and elegant full-cloth binding. Made to last. Made to be kept and appreciated. Made to tell the world: This is real class. Open it up and you are soon greeted on the title page by a chilling illustration, the only one in the book or jacket—two pairs of eyes, an extreme close shot in black and white, the eyes of the killers, here brooding over the story to follow. To say the eyes of these two dead young men are haunting would be an understatement. That it is, finally, their book, their story, is underscored by the epigraph, four lines asking for pity and God’s mercy, from Francois Villon’s “Ballade des pendus.”

One thing more. We soon discover that one of the people to whom the book is dedicated is Capote’s old childhood friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the best-loved stories of our time. From all the advance publicity about the making of the book, we already knew that Harper Lee had helped him in various ways in the research and socially in winning over reticent people in Kansas.

The advance publicity, unusual for the time, and the carefully designed jacket copy for the book served a powerful technical purpose as well. Since we knew, more or less, what was coming to pass before reading the first words on the first page, knew that what was coming was horrific—”blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces,” to be followed in due course by a double hanging, Capote was free to do what he did, building his story quietly and inexorably. Building it around a classical four-part structure, he could, paradoxically, keep suspense at a high level throughout. The first three sections move along quickly and easily, intercutting back and forth between the murderers and their unsuspecting victims, then the hunters and the hunted. In the final section, “The Corner,” dealing with the trial and punishment, Capote demonstrated a virtuoso magician’s sleight of hand. By now all the original suspense has been dissipated, and the announced conclusion, the hanging of the killers, was obligatory. Yet he managed to get there without any diminishment of intensity or interest. The hanging scene is one of the finest of its kind, right up there with Melville’s Billy Budd and the hanging of Popeye in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. With one great difference. Melville and Faulkner scrupulously avoided the dramatic cliches, working against the grain of the material. Capote pulled out all the stops: “The hangman coughed—impatiently lifted his cowboy hat and settled it again, a gesture somehow reminiscent of a turkey buzzard huffing, then smoothing its neck feathers—and Hickcock, nudged by an attendant, mounted the scaffold steps.” That others present at the scene recalled the details, including the condemned men’s last words, differently is not strictly relevant. It’s a hell of a hanging.

Before In Cold Blood Capote had written—in Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, even in the lighthearted Breakfast at Tiffany’s—romantic fables, well-removed from the world of “realistic” fiction. Even though each of these works is different from the others, all have a clear and consistent moral frame, an inversion of conventional, middle-class values. Even the lovable Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has a hard and independent core: “Good? Honest is more what I mean. Not low-type honest—I’d rob a grave, I’d steal two-bits off a dead man’s eyes if I thought it would contribute to the day’s enjoyment—but unto-thyself-type honest. Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.” In each of these books, and most of the short stories, it is the outsiders and the outcasts who reject conventional morality and are examples of another kind of virtue. Those who manage to prosper or get along in the duplicitous world of practical matters are usually exposed as being at heart deceitful and/or self-deceived, hypocrites at best. It is these, too, who make real mischief and cause real trouble. In the end, thanks to a kind of whimsical Providence or poetic justice they get what is coming to them.

In In Cold Blood it is the ail-American Clutter family—Herbert William Clutter, 48, the father; Bonnie, his wife; Kenyon, 15, the only son; and Nancy, 16, “the town darling”—whom destiny has selected to represent, in Capote’s telling, “sane, safe, insular, even smug America—people who have every chance against people who have none.” Anyone at all familiar with the world of Capote’s earlier fiction knew two things, why he had chosen this subject and not another and what doom was coming to the Clutters, from the moment he first introduced Herbert Clutter. “Always certain of what he wanted in the world, Mr. Clutter had in large measure obtained it.” Poor Clutter is even physically emblematic of the doom-deserving, vulnerable losers (outward and visible winners) of Capote’s universe: “Though he wore rimless glasses and was of but average height, standing just under five feet ten, Mr. Clutter cut a man’s-man figure. His shoulders were broad, his hair had held its dark color, his square-jawed confident face retained a healthy-hued youthfulness, and his teeth, unstained and strong enough to shatter walnuts, were still intact.” People who happened to have read Capote would read that passage and others with an awareness of his irony. People who had never read a word until the arrival of In Cold Blood, the huge majority of the audience that made the book a bestseller, were at once invited and allowed to take things straight, at face value. The subtext, however, is slightly camouflaged and complicated because there are some good “straights” in the story, the most important of whom, “a lean and handsome fourth-generation Kansan of forty-seven,” is Alvin Adams Dewey, an agent of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the closest facsimile of a conventional “hero” in the book. Alvin Dewey and his family became friends of Capote in real life and was noted by Gloria Steinem in her account of “The Party” in 1967. “Alvin Dewey answered questions about problems of the Clutter case, just as dignified and direct in the Paley dining room as he had been in Kansas during the murder investigation in In Cold Blood.” Subtext: There are some real people out there beyond the Hudson, Dorothy. Even in a place like Kansas. But Dewey, as a figure in the book, is treated with a respect and consideration that, otherwise, only the killers receive.

Capote is adroitly clever here, too. He inverts the old good-cop-bad-cop convention and uses it on the murderers. One, Dick Hickcock, is from the outset the most blameworthy and the least attractive, basically a bad influence on the other, Perry Smith, who is presented with deeply dimensional sympathy. Hickcock is the heavy. There is an archetypal malevolence about him with his head “halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center,” with his “left eye being truly serpentine, with a venemous, sickly-blue squint that, although it was involuntarily acquired, seemed nevertheless to warn of bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature.” That’s our first impression. Not too pretty, huh? You bring a serpent and an apple together in the same paragraph and you’re talking Original Sin and suchlike.

Perry Smith, though he suffers from a physical deformity as the result of an accident, has an interesting look about him: “It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful; a tilt of the head, a twist of the lips, and the corrupt gypsy became the gentle romantic.” Perry Smith becomes in almost every detail we are given a spooky embodiment of Capote’s early fiction. What could be more perfect for a Capote protagonist than to be the child of “a lean Cherokee girl (who) rode a wild horse, a “bucking bronco,” and her loosened hair whipped back and forth, flew about like a flamenco dancer’s”? Capote gives us an empathetic and fascinating look at a murderer’s psyche through his portrait of Perry Smith.

There are a number of problems, more evident in hindsight than at the time. For one thing there is the complex matter of fact and judgment. When pictures of the people involved appeared in the magazines, it was clear how much of Capote’s descriptions and judgments was subjective, literary. The people did not look much like the people he described. Later it turned out that they did not do or say all the things he attributed to them; and some things neither he nor anyone else could have known. Still, it was wonderful reporting and charged writing. And we have become used to the other flaws in our post-Capote non-fiction narratives.

There is also the slightly more disturbing fact that neither the Clutters nor the killers were fictional constructs. They were real people. The brains and blood and hair that splatter walls of the house at River Valley Farm were real. There remains the often asked and always unanswered question, then: were the lives and deaths of these people exploited for the sake of our titillation and the author’s profit? Maybe so, but by now both titillation and profit from the real sufferings of others have become so commonplace as to leave us unfit to ask that question about a book from 31 years ago. Maybe Capote lent to the “true crime” story a patina of literary respectability; but now it seems that this was coming anyway, part of the spirit of the 1960’s, as was our gradual change over from concern for victims to fascination with perpetrators. Capote’s book had something to do with that change of heart and values and certainly spawned a multitude of literary imitations in both fiction and non-fiction. For that reason alone In Cold Blood is an important book, an historical landmark. And, finally, there is another, maybe stronger claim the book makes. The “real” world of America as revealed in this story, of which Capote said at the time “It’s what I really think about America,” has come to pass, is far more a matter of public fact than private vision. Who today would deny that we live in a “desperate, savage, violent America (that is) in collision with sane, safe, insular, even smug America”? In that sense In Cold Blood can qualify as prophecy.

What was beyond prophecy, even predictability, was that this book would be the last “big” book by Truman Capote. There would be five more books in his lifetime, none without style and merit, but none of them more than minor exercises. When he died in 1984, he had been working for many years on the novel Answered Prayers, dealing with his rich and powerful acquaintances, the folks who came to The Party. When something was cobbled together by Random House from published excerpts and leftover bits and pieces, it was described on the jacket as “perhaps the most famous unpublished novel in contemporary American letters.” The publication of Answered Prayers in 1987 did little or nothing to change that judgment call. Meantime, no question about it, Truman Capote’s continuing claim on our attention derives from and rests in a single extraordinary volume—In Cold Blood.


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