In Cold Blood
The connection this story from 1959 has with current conundrums is uncanny. Unfortunately it also proves that everything old is new again—especially when we see disparity with regard to socio-economic status weaved into one of the prevailing themes in this novel: an argument about capital punishment. Nevertheless, Truman Capote artfully frames the argument through character development, dialogue, narrative, and setting, while never mounting a soap box to drive home a bias.
Outside the novel, Capote chose to insert himself into the cloistered Kansas setting where an unexplained murder of an archetypal American family took place. He knew being a southern expatriate would not warm the reception he’d get from the locals; for the most part he was an outsider, ostentatiously gay, and a city-folk–in that order. If he wanted to talk with these people it would take some help from his dear friend, Harper Lee. So, she came along to make his entrée less of a threat. It worked! But, it’s noteworthy that neither Capote nor Lee were working class like the Holcomb, Kansas townspeople they’d come to interview. Capote was a millionaire on his own dime with no pressure to rush his project or leave in a hurry. This absolute freedom set him apart not only in terms of socio-economic status, but also in terms of his ability to look at the big picture when telling the story. It unfolded as “a tale of two…”
Capote meticulously set the scene, allowing for detailed character development not only of the Clutter family and friends, but of the accused and the characters surrounding them. Readers, we were able to see the big picture, the same as Capote. He painted it with fine strokes, illustrating societal ills, opportunities lost or squandered, an evolving justice system experiencing growing pains, and earnest feeling for the victims along with an understanding of the accused.
By planning what would become a dual storyline, Capote gives us more evidence of economic and social disparity as he presents the Clutters–comfortable land owners, and the accused as impoverished. So, you have Capote who is not really a discernable character in the book as rich—perhaps even extravagant—he’s the storyteller, the Clutters (innocence lost, victims) as comfortable but perhaps middle class, and the accused murderers, Smith and Hickock, as poor—missing out on advantages available to a prosperous, post WWII America.
First, let’s get Capote out of the way. In real life he initially tamped down his journalist/outsider persona with the help of Harper Lee. Knowing his personal story would be a distraction in the novel, we never clearly see Capote as a character and can barely make out that he’s a journalist telling this story.
The Clutters, however, are well developed, multi-dimensional characters. Without a doubt, we sympathize with them as innocent victims. Capote’s capital punishment argument unfolds as we see the effect the Clutter murders have on Holcomb and the perception of an insulated Middle America that is now destroyed. Through the experiences of Holcomb’s supporting characters, Capote has readers pondering the need for capital punishment—even retribution. Capote does this by emphasizing the senselessness of the murders. He juxtaposes the promise of young Nancy and Kenyon Clutter against their abrupt and brutal end. Capote further raises the reader’s ire by revealing Smith and Hickock’s robbery motive and their $50. takeaway for four lives.
Although much care is given the description, lives, and social standing of the Clutters, Capote spends the majority of “In Cold Blood” writing about Smith and Hickock. Less than halfway through, Capote describes the evening when agent Dewey got news of the Smith and Hickock arrest that happened in Las Vegas.1 The chapter in which this occurred was aptly named “Answers.” From this point forward, Capote’s subtle capital punishment argument stacks up evidence that makes readers question it and our justice system. Would government assistance or intervention early on have made a difference in the adult lives of Smith and Hickock? Were Smith and Hickock (one or both) mentally ill? Are death row and the appeals process a torture unto themselves? Is the execution of capital punishment inhumane?
Let’s take a look at what Capote lays out regarding both murderer’s and their impoverished youth…
Perry Smith speaking on his youth:
“…afterward my mother put me to stay in a Catholic orphanage. The one where the Black Widows were always at me. Hitting me.”2
Dick Hickock speaking about his family background:
“…family depended upon church assistance and the charity of neighbors—otherwise we would’ve starved. O.K. We never had much money, but we were never really down-and–out…”3
Although Smith’s situation is more disastrous; both lives might have benefitted from early assistance or intervention. Smith’s environment was toxic where Hickock’s was not, yet both are incubated in poverty. There is no assurance that their early environment led to crime, but Capote throws readers the notion of a troubled beginning as an argument in favor of intervention. Hickock’s father testifies his son, Richard, was “No trouble to anybody.” prior to a July 1950 car accident.4 He cites the accident as reason for his son’s behavior which segues into the question of mental illness.
During the trial, medical testimony supporting the assertion Smith and Hickock were “not right”, was inadmissible. There was no room for grey area or explanations. The M’Naughten Rule was in effect. A law which “recognizes no form of insanity provided the defendant has the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong—legally, not morally.”5 So, the diagnosis of Smith being a paranoid schizophrenic and Hickock having a personality disorder were extensively revealed in Capote’s book along with what would have been Dr. Jones’ full testimony, had it been allowed.6 In addition, Dr. Statten’s contention that Smith consumed by schizophrenia was under a “mental eclipse” was only part of Capote’s book and not the trial.7
Subsequently, Capote uses narrative to describe how the appeals process on death row was in itself torturous. Hickock filed appeals for a while, urging Smith to do the same by asserting the atmosphere at the trial venue in Garden City made it impossible to seat an unbiased jury.8
“As for the jurors that were chosen, at least two had clearly indicated a presumption of guilt during the vior dire examination (“When asked to state his opinion of capital punishment, one man said that ordinarily he was against it, but in this case no”)…”
The date of execution was postponed during the appeal, but after having lost, was again set for October 1962. With subsequent appeals their execution was postponed twice more. On April 14, 1965 they were executed by hanging–first Hickock, then Smith.9
Finally, Capote addresses the question of capital punishment being humane.10
“…he don’t feel nothing. Wouldn’t be humane if he did.” “…I suppose they feed them a lot of pills. Sedatives.” “Hell, no. Against the rules…”
In the case of Hickock approximately twenty minutes passed before the body was pronounced dead at the end of the rope. 1965 was the last time a prisoner was executed in the state of Kansas, despite capital punishment (by lethal injection) being legal there today.
The fact that “In Cold Blood” excites us to debate this issue almost 50 years later is testament to Capote crafting a story that’s ageless.