Of the Devil’s Party: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

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This review first appeared on The Scottish Review of Books website, 8th April 2017.

On 15 November 1959, Kansan farmer Herb Clutter’s throat was cut, his head blown open by a 12-gauge shotgun. His teenage son Kenyon’s final moments were spent bound and gagged yards from this scene, before he too was shot at point blank range. Soon after, Kenyon’s sister Nancy uttered her last words before turning to face her bedroom wall, which was seconds later sprayed with blood. Having endured the agony of listening to her family die, Herb’s wife Bonnie was shot dead as she lay in bed, her hands clasped as if in prayer.

Truman Capote has no interest in clichéd depictions of one-note monsters, so the killers of In Cold Blood – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – are allowed to rage, laugh, despair, feast and dream; and therein lies the book’s moral dilemma. Does Capote’s overwhelming interest in his antihero Perry Smith veer into unhealthy territory, proving the author to be, as William Blake said of John Milton, ‘Of the Devil’s party without knowing it’?

In Cold Blood seeks to unpick the Clutter case from the inside out. In 1959, Capote visited Holcomb, planning to write an article for The New Yorker examining the aftershocks of these seemingly motiveless acts of barbarism. Instead, the story swelled into his seminal ‘non-fiction novel’ of 1965, in which Capote eschews journalistic tropes and utilises novelistic techniques of scene selection, layering, manufactured dialogue, dramatic tension and beautifully crafted language.

From the offset, Capote lumps victims and perpetrators together: ‘At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.’ It may, then, seem as if the Clutter deaths are no more than a handy launch-pad for Capote’s psychological study of a murderer. Take, for instance, Perry Smith’s vivid description of his recurrent surreal dreamscape, an African jungle containing a stinking tree with blue leaves and diamonds big as oranges:

‘That’s why I’m there – to pick myself a bushel of diamonds. But I know the minute I try to, the minute I reach up, a snake is gonna fall on me. A snake that guards the tree. This fat sonofabitch living in the branches… We wrestle around, but he’s a slippery sonofabitch and I can’t get a hold, he’s crushing me, you can hear my legs cracking… he starts to swallow me.’

Perry is saved, as he always is in such dreams, by a vast sunflower-yellow bird who devours the snake and gently lifts the dreamer to paradise. The dream tells you everything you need to know about this fantasist who craves the discovery of riches, feels hunted by those he imagines seek to thwart him, and who desires the miraculous assent to some non-existent promised land.

Readers gain direct access to the rat’s nest of Perry’s consciousness. We hear how alcohol honed his mother’s tongue ‘to the wickedest point’, made her swollen and promiscuous before she ‘strangled to death on her own vomit’. We hear how he and his siblings lived off ‘mush and Hershey kisses and condensed milk’ before being disbanded and forced into care. Perry was placed in a Catholic orphanage where nuns beat him with a flashlight and doused him in icy baths as punishment for bedwetting. Two of his siblings committed suicide. His thwarted father tried to kill him.

We are made privy to Perry’s rich interior life, his un-nurtured capacity to learn, his musical ability, his desire to acquire a dazzling vocabulary, his exquisite handwriting. He is ‘an incessant conceiver of voyages’, fantasizes about ‘heaping caskets of gold’ and a land where the sun shines always and ‘all you wore was grass and flowers.’ We are led to envisage his ‘changeling’s face’ flitting between ‘impish’, ‘soulful’, ‘corrupt’, ‘gypsy’, ‘gentle’, ‘romantic’ and ‘roguish’, his ‘stunted’ legs making him ‘no taller than a twelve-year-old child’.

Compare this to Capote’s strangely detached account of Herb Clutter, which makes the man seem puritan and patriarchal. Herb eats ‘Spartan breakfasts’; shuns tea, coffee, cigarettes and alcohol; does not care for card games, golf, cocktails, buffet suppers or ‘any pastime that he felt did not “accomplish something”’. His word is law. He is a pillar of his baseball-and-bible-loving, white-as-a-picket-fence community.

Wraithlike Bonnie Clutter’s personality is reduced ‘to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease’. Sixteen year old Nancy seems, quite frankly, too good to be true. She cooks, sews, arranges flowers, plays instruments, tutors younger girls, gets straight As, is class president, a leader in the 4-H programme and the Young Methodist’s League, can ride a horse, and yet ‘never brags’. To a girlfriend on the phone she says: ‘I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.’ Fifteen year old Kenyon is not given much of a look in at all.

And yet – there are dreams nestled in these pages every bit as evocative as Perry’s malodorous tree and yellow wonder-bird. Marie, wife of Detective Alvin Dewey, dreams that an apparition of Bonnie comes before her, wringing her hands and muttering frantically: ‘To be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.’ In another dream sequence, Alvin Dewey chases the ghostly forms of the two killers, riddling them with bullets as they evaporate, laughing mockingly at him. The detective is ‘filled with a despair so mournfully intense’ that he awakes.

Nor is Capote’s sympathy reserved exclusively for Perry. Sue Kidwell, Nancy’s friend, is shown overwhelmed with emotion when Nancy’s beloved horse Babe is sold for seventy-five dollars to a farmer who will doubtless put the old mare to work. As Babe is led away, Sue ‘raised her hand as if to wave goodbye, but instead clasped it over her mouth.’ Capote, master of suggestion over statement, uses Sue’s small gesture of grief, sickness and horror to disturb us far more than weeping and wailing ever could.

Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby, too, is bathed in the light of Capote’s consideration: ‘grief had drawn a circle round him he could not escape from and others could not enter’. One sentence doing the work of ten, Capote’s deft phrasing illuminates the isolating power of loss. Nancy is shown to be extraordinarily brave before her death, ‘trying hard to act casual and friendly’ even as armed intruders breach the sanctity of her childhood home. Herb’s valiant efforts to keep himself and his family calm, to cooperate in order to avoid the very worst thing happening, are also profoundly affecting. A story from Herb’s boyhood, in which he drives a horse and cart through a snowstorm to deliver Christmas presents to his family, makes him so much more likeable than the pleasure-dodging killjoy of the opening pages.

Far from painting Perry as nothing more than the victim of hideous circumstances, Capote shows the man to be, at times, wholly despicable. True, Perry is revolted by brutish Dick’s paedophilic tendencies, and prevents him from raping Nancy before her death. Guts twisting, he can barely eat while Dick blithely wolfs chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, steaks, Hershey bars and gumdrops. Perry lies ‘embraced by shame’ in his cell while Dick tells dirty jokes and makes a shiv to stick in Undersheriff Meier’s neck. Standing in the courtroom in a borrowed shirt and rolled-up jeans, Perry is a pitiable figure, looking ‘as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.’

However, Perry is also capable of terrible racist slurs, made more despicable by the casualness with which he spouts them. He claims to have once thrown a man off a bridge for no reason. On reading a newspaper article detailing his crimes, he wonders idly how much the Clutter funeral cost. He hunts, alongside Dick, for ‘a stranger to rob, strangle, discard on the desert’, and was able to converse genially with Nancy before – apparently – putting a bullet inside her. As Perry’s sister writes, he is ‘a human being with a free will.’ Nothing can excuse his deeds, not even the childhood from hell.

There is a wealth of detail in In Cold Blood, the symbolic power of which is never overstated: the two scavenging tomcats outside the courthouse who appear like incarnations of Dick and Perry; Perry’s chrysanthemum tattoo mirroring the chrysanthemums swaying in the Clutter garden; the exotic yellow bird of Perry’s dream contrasting with the dull ‘blonde chicken’ of prosaic Dick’s; the trapped bobcat of Marie Dewey’s recollections, sparked by a photograph of Dick: ‘though she’d wanted to release it, the cat’s eyes, radiant with pain and hatred, had drained her of pity and filled her with terror.’

Capote’s use of portentous statements at the end of sections creates a creeping sense of unease. On Bonnie’s final day, for instance, Capote describes the contents of her bedroom, including a bookmark, ‘a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.”’ His use of the present tense and the way he cuts between scenes creates a dramatic tension reminiscent of a cinematic thriller. As the killers’ car crawls towards the Clutter house, time jumps to after the murder, and the gruesome acts are – for the moment – omitted. It takes over 200 pages until we hear the murderers’ accounts of what exactly happened that night, a hugely satisfying payoff after Capote’s tantalising drip-feed of information.

But more than this, Capote is unrivalled in his ability to capture personality in dialogue, from informer Floyd Wells describing bad checks as ‘a regular washline of hot paper’, to salty-old-broad Mother Truitt relating an act ‘so low a caterpillar could pee over it’. His evocations of the Kansan landscape elevate In Cold Blood above the mere thrilling or titillating: the ‘hip-high, sheep-slaughtering snows; the slushes and the strange land fogs of spring; and summer, when even crows seek the puny shade, and the tawny infinitude of wheatstalks bristle, blaze’. Whether he is describing ‘the pumpkin-season temperature, the day’s arid glitter’ or ‘the fields, lion-coloured now, luminously golden with after-harvest stubble’, Capote’s masterful prose reaches poetic heights.

Recently, much has been made of Capote’s special treatment of those inhabitants of Holcomb he liked (handsome, tenacious Dewey appears like a matinee idol) and his dismissal of those he did not (Duane West, a key figure in the trial, is dismissed as a pudgy, prematurely-aged nobody). Capote’s flamboyance and childlike voice endeared him to some but forced more conservative denizens to recoil.

Armed with nothing more than an excellent memory, he interviewed locals without taking notes, creating composite characters and inventing scenes. Abandoned by his own parents, and, as an openly gay man, on the fringes of society himself, he clearly felt an affinity with Perry Smith, a beguiling bond that led him to narrow his focus. Does this mean the author’s ego had a warping effect on his search for the truth?

If, as Voltaire wrote, we should ‘Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers’, Capote should be judged not by his tweaks, inventions and omissions but by the questions he raises, which remain every bit as pertinent today. Is the death penalty as cold blooded as premeditated murder? What happens when the American Dream turns sour? What makes people kill? Without offering any explicit moral judgment, Capote leaves his readers to decide.

In Cold Blood is a sophisticated whydunit written with extraordinary poetic power, tense as a thriller, stylishly bleak as a film noir. Perry Smith is undoubtedly the most vivid and complex character, but was Capote truly ‘of the Devil’s party’? Quite possibly, but if he was then he most certainly knew it, and used his insight into the mind of a brutalised, broken man to leave us with a startling thought: there but for the grace of God go I?

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