We all have our souls and we all have facades
and then there’s something in between that makes us function as people.
That’s what I have the ability to communicate.
–Truman Capote, in the introduction to, In Cold Blood.
Truman then proceeds to do just that. He meticulously details each of the Clutter Family members by their looks, their hobbies, their social connections, performance, and context within their community. But more than that, it is his knack for including the bits that the human in us recognizes, reaches out to, and connects with in a tangible way that is masterful.
It is impressive to be able to effect it with the innocent victims of a heinous tragedy. What may be even more startling is how he able to do the same with the killers.
Truman is not the only author to use it, but one of the things I love about the format of the book is alternating chapters between two, separate, story lines and then have them slowly converge towards each other.
The author first introduces the Clutters: father/husband, Herb; mother/wife, Bonnie; daughter/sister, Nancy; and son/brother, Kenyon. Their residence is described, the house, the outbuildings, the landscape, and the things that fill them in.
Then the same is done with the two killers, Dick and Perry. These two’s story lines separate and converge again and again but never for too long. Their chapters also consistently travel back and forth in time, looking at circumstances, events, and individuals who shaped their characters.
Through a large bulk of the book the alternating chapters continue, with the Clutter chapters showing the family innocently going about their business of living in the small Holcomb, Kansas community; and the killer’s chapters chronicling their cross-country road trip full of petty crime and scrounging for lodging, food, and the naive or gullible to exploit. Again, the author deftly injects details that show the two separate tracks growing closer in time and space. Although the focal point that drives the story is the murder of the family, the actual intersection between them is only an hour or so.
The alternating chapters continue after the murder, but now they are between the community and law enforcement responses and the killers. Again, the drawing near between the two as law enforcement begins to close in on their capture.
The last section of the book covers the trials, the verdicts, the appeals, and the final outcome.
If I were to describe, In Cold Blood as a painting, I would say it is a canvas of varied monochromes of light and dark with startling splashes of color.
What had the most impact on me while, and after, reading it is how both cavalier and studied thoughts of good and evil manifest themselves within humans and then spill out upon others.
A few of many favorite passages from the book:
Description of the Postmistress of Holcomb:
Mrs. Clare is a gaunt, trouser-wearing, woolen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-colored, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age … but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration.
I was terribly sure trees were the same as birds or people. That they thought things, and talked among themselves. And we could hear them if we really tried. It was just a matter of emptying your head of all other sounds. Being very quiet and listening very hard. Sometimes I still believe that. But one can never get quiet enough …
Description of the town cemetery:
Valley View Cemetery, that gray-and-green island of tombs and trees and flowered paths, a restful, leafy, whispering oasis lying like a cool piece of cloud shade on the luminous wheat plains north of town.
Now a young girl, probably twelve, was drawing figures in the sand, carving out big, crude faces with a piece of driftwood. Dick, pretending to admire her art, offered the shells he had gathered. “They make good eyes,” he said. The child accepted the gift, whereupon Dick smiled and winked at her. He was sorry he felt as he did about her, for his sexual interest in female children was a failing of which he was “sincerely ashamed” – a secret he’d not confessed to anyone and hoped no one suspected (though he was aware that Perry had reason to), because other people might not think it was “normal.” That to be sure, was something he was certain he was – “a normal.”
Perry’s suicide ideation:
“Oh, come let us adore Him, Oh, come let us adore Him”: a cathedral choir, an exalted music that moved Perry to tears – which refused to stop, even after the music did. And as was not uncommon when he was thus afflicted, he dwelt upon a possibility that had for him “tremendous fascination”: suicide. As a child he had often thought of killing himself, but those were sentimental reveries born of a wish to punish his father and mother and other enemies. From young manhood onward, however, the prospect of ending his life had more and more lost its fantastic quality. That, he must remember, was Jimmy’s “solution,” and Fern’s, too. And lately it had come to seem not just an alternative but the specific death awaiting him.
About townsfolk, reporters, etc. waiting for captured suspects, Dick and Perry, to arrive at the courthouse where they would be tried:
Among Garden City’s animals are two gray tomcats who are always together – thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinize the engine grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travelers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds – crows, chickadees, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they are surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle. Having cruised Main Street, they invariably turn the corner at Main and Grant, then lope along toward Courthouse Square, another of their hunting grounds – and a highly promising one on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 6, for the area swarmed with Finney County vehicles that had brought to town part of the crowd populating the square.