What I’m Reading: In Cold Blood

Another recently finished book I’m only now getting around to writing about.  “But isn’t In Cold Blood true crime?” you may ask, more in Dana’s wheelhouse than mine?  Indeed it is, but since reading Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James last summer, where he mentioned ICB as the best true crime book ever written, I’ve wanted to tackle it.

So ICB tells the story of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two ex-cons who had briefly shared a cell in the Kansas State Penitentary and got together after their release to commit a robbery.  Their target: the Clutter farm, a prosperous spread in western Kansas described to them in detail by another prisoner.  A farm may seem an unlikely robbery prospect, but they were told (erroneously, as it turned out) that Herb Clutter kept a safe in the house with at least $10,000 in it at all times.  And the place was isolated, giving them plenty of time to work without interruption.  All the time they needed to locate and open the safe, and kill any family members in the house, if necessary.

They broke in with no problems, but when they found no safe, they woke Herb, his wife Bonnie, and his teen-age children, Kenyon and Nancy, and tied them up.  They knocked Herb around a bit but realized quickly the safe didn’t exist, and proceeded to execute the family.  Then they drove to Kansas City, floated a few hundred bucks worth of bad checks, and took a little vacation to Mexico.  Eventually they returned to the United States and were located by Kansas detectives a few months later in Las Vegas.

The murder spree was nationwide news in 1959, and attracted the attention of Truman Capote, who traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, in 1960 and spent four years interviewing residents and following Hickock’s and Smith’s trial and death row appeals.  He published his book in 1966, the first “nonfiction novel,” in which a real-life narrative is elaborated with fictionalized thoughts and conversations.

One thing that struck me about the book is that neither Dick Hickock or Perry Smith could have committed the murders on his own, but their respective character flaws added up to a complete sociopath when together.  Dick lacked a conscience and was the mastermind of their misadventures, but didn’t have the guts to kill.  Perry was an interesting character, sensitive, intelligent, and a natural at any instrument he picked up; he might have been a musician if a childhood of neglect and abuse hadn’t twisted his personality.  He too was no real murderer, but was capable of brutal violence if pushed, or when goaded and guided by Dick.

I’m probably not cut out for reading true crime.  I have no problem with scary or gory books and movies in general, but I do prefer them to be fiction.  There were several points when I was really getting into the story, only to realize that it had actually happened and become a little sickened at my own eager response and identification with the charismatic criminals.  The only one I remember reading before this was something I picked up at my grandparent’s house when I was in high school, a book of my grandfather’s on Richard Ramirez, the 1970s California serial killer known as the Nightstalker.  I was bothered then, too, by a feeling of what almost might be termed bloodlust when reading it, an unhealthy desire to see how the horror played out.  (And what fascination with evil drives my grandfather, a gentle retired country doctor, to read such books by the boatload?)

But if this is your thing, I agree In Cold Blood is probably as good as it gets.  The writing is precise and elegant, the characters well-presented and incisively analyzed.  I’m not qualified to say how close Capote got to real life, but it feels as real as possible.  There’s nothing sensationalized in his telling, but be aware he does describe the murders in clinical, policework-like detail.  In the end, I’m glad I read it, and can recommend it to adult who likes good writing and has a moderately strong stomach.

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