Monday, July 7, 2008

In Cold Blood

It’s chilling.

The cover. The title. The story. And worst of all its true.

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s 1965 book about the murder of a Kansas family reads like a novel. Well, at least it does in some places. At other times, it seems more like an enigmatic theological puzzle: are there actually human beings completely devoid of conscience? Well there are human beings born without physical body parts, so I suppose it is possible we can be conceived without whole psyches.

When my daughter told me she was reading this for her high school English 3 class, I was surprised. In Cold Blood? It seemed a strange choice for a literature class; it’s not even a work of fiction. Even so it is a masterpiece.

Capote constructs the story deliberately to build and hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end. I remember first reading the book as a teenager myself—although I’m sure it wasn’t a school assignment. Back then, I couldn’t read the book after dark and didn’t like being alone for weeks after reading it.

This read was quite different, however. I was more detached from the crime this time—knowing what it was, how it was performed and who did it. Therefore, I could read the book from the perspective of an amateur sociologist/psychologist and armchair theologian. Oh, and I also read it from a literary vantage as well.

It’s from each of these hilltops, I’ll offer the view. I must state at this point though, my writing will contain spoilers from now on; so if you have NOT read the book, I highly recommend you stop and read the book instead!


It does seem silly to put a spoiler alert in a work of non-fiction, but that is to Capote’s credit in the construction of this book. He begins with the time period leading up to the day of the crime—both for the victims and their assassins. Then he abruptly cuts to the aftermath and the discovery of the crime and the beginning of its investigation. By using this technique, our author manages to create and maintain a heightened sense of suspense and uncertainty. What happened? How exactly did it happen? Who did what? When? How do they know this? Questions were buzzing around my head like annoying flies as I struggled along with the frustrated investigators in the unsettled weeks after the murders. I knew they would eventually solve the riddles, so I had that much more admiration for Capote’s incredible outline of events.

From the socio-psychological perspective, I sat in amazement of the description’s of the killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith. I have a Bachelor of Science in Administration of Justice and a M.E. in Human Relations. Where do “people” like this fit in? Are they “people”? In fact, I found the personality descriptions of the killers almost more chilling than the crimes themselves. They rob, torture, kill and have no remorse. They don’t even see why they should feel sympathy for their victims. In some ways. And yet in another separate area, one of the killers, concerns himself with making the victims comfortable. Comfortable? Huh? It is as if the separate parts of their brains aren’t connected.

So that leads to the theological side of things.

What is the moral responsibility of such men? Are they even morally responsible? Can we hold them accountable for their actions? And if not, what do we do with them—which leads back into the social arena again. Maybe I shouldn’t even attempt to separate out all these sub-areas with arbitrary designations and classifications.

In this sad case, our society solved its problem on the gallows. In effect we said, “Look what a horrible thing they did—killing innocent people. But these men certainly aren’t innocent! They are going to pay for their crime and we’re going to show them by sending them back where they came from.” So we did.

Guess we showed them.

If you haven’t read In Cold Blood in awhile, you need to. No rating, but the highest recommendation.

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