My rating: 4 stars
On 15th November 1959 the inhabitants of a small town in Kansas awoke to discover that a violent murder had been perpetrated during the night. Four members of the Clutter family, a well-liked family in the town, had been tied up and shot in their own home. With no apparent motive for the crime and robbery being discounted early on, since only a portable radio, a pair of binoculars, and a “lousy $43” in cash were taken from the scene, the investigation was doomed from the start. However, acting on a tip from a former cell mate, the perpetrators (Dick Hickock and Perry Smith) were caught, brought to trial and executed in 1965.
Capote set out to research and write In Cold Blood once Hickock and Smith had been tried and were on death row. Since the facts of the crime were known and the perpetrators had been executed by the time the book was published in 1966, Capote focuses on the psychology of Hickock and Smith more than on the facts of the investigation. This approach looks at the human aspects of the killers, their early lives and motivations, rather than simply concentrating on the bland facts of the investigation which would have been well known to his audience. As an investigation of the psychology of murderers, In Cold Blood makes for a fascinating read. It is clear that Capote felt an affinity with Perry Smith, who is described throughout as the more compassionate of the two. He takes responsibility for the murders, ostensibly because he feels sorry for Hickock’s mother, and is described throughout as having an artistic temperament and being interested in art, literature and music. Hickock, on the other hand, is an ephebophile who expresses interest in raping many of the young women he comes into contact with throughout his life. The dissonance between these two personalities is jarring and serves to further heighten the sense of disbelief surrounding the gruesome murders.
There has been some disagreement over the veracity of the factual status of the book. While Capote argued that everything he wrote was true, others have intimated that he made up scenes to fit his story and mischaracterising people to suit his own ends. However, it cannot be denied that Capote created a new genre of ‘true crime’ with this book and that it has affected a great many people. Its power lies in the vivid psychological descriptions of Hickock and Smith, who are portrayed as cold, calculating killers who manage to maintain a public face of normality. Indeed, their complete emotional disengagement from the violent murders only serves to heighten the reader’s discomfort.
Verdict: While there may be some factual errors in the book, it is a fascinating profile of two hardened criminals and their reasoning behind brutally murdering a family. It can also be credited with creating a new genre of writing and influencing many later authors. If you have any interest at all in criminal psychology, this is definitely worth reading.