The familiar, motiveless crime: A wholesome, small-town Kansas family is brutally murdered by individual shotgun blasts to the head.
Truman Capote’s account of the slain family, the reaction of their community of Holcombe Kansas, and the sojourn of murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as they effortlessly flee the law and then foolishly deliver themselves unto it, is a gripping, classic work. First and most obvious because we, as a society, are entranced by true crime tales, especially those as masterfully written as In Cold Blood. We simultaneously have a deep interest in moral justice as well a fascination with violent criminals.
But more important and Capote’s far greater contribution: In Cold Blood does not limit its cast to ‘helpless victims’ and ‘evil ne’er-do-wells’. The four Clutters — Mother, Father, Son, Daughter are characterized fully, though clearly somewhat fictitiously as Capote reveals thoughts of theirs he couldn’t possibly know. By digging deep into the last day of their lives he shows how abrupt it all can can end. Not a dramatic build up like a movie, but day to day chores and concerns, errands to be run and college plans to be made, and then nothing.
Many more words are spent on Dick and Perry, the cold blooded killers themselves. They’re the protagonists of this narrative, really. It’s difficult to accept both the scope of their crime and the persons described, who the majority of the time act and think like normal-ish people. Perry is concerned with improving his vocabulary and likes to play the guitar. Dick is legitimately worried what his mother will think of him even as he screws her over. Even law enforcement agents who dedicated their lives to catching them for months couldn’t work up much animosity when they finally nabbed them.
While the voice of the narrator does not promote any particular stance, it’s difficult to read In Cold Blood as anything but an indictment of the death penalty. Many of the court processes are farcical — a dubious Kansas law of the time only allowed psychiatric professionals to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the single question of ‘Does this defendant know the legal difference between right and wrong?’ instead of the myriad and complicated answers that mental health questions demand. As a result, Dick and Perry share death row with at least one severely mentally ill inmate (later executed) who cannot truly separate the real world from his own imagination. Moreover, Kansas’ death penalty at the time was hanging by the neck, which is unbelievably barbaric. Dick Hickock takes 19 minutes to die while the bystanders convince each other he felt nothing beyond the initial drop.
But it’s far more nuanced than ‘Hanging = bad’. For one, it doesn’t take much more than to take a look at the real Clutter family…
…and read the harrowing tale of the deaths, tortured, filled with terror as their loved ones were executed one by one, and think “Yeah, okay, Perry and Dick probably should not have been hanged, but honestly who gives a shit?”
The novel makes no bones about it: While it took a confluence of factors bringing both men together to lead to murder, it was far from unlikely and if they instead went to prison for 20 years and got out on parole, it would also be far from unlikely that either man, but especially Perry, would cause major harm again. Perry, a soft spoken and intelligent man, was seriously abused as a child. We’re talking horrendous, absent or fighting parents, nuns at school nearly drowning him by holding him under iced bath water, multiple siblings killing themselves. Every position of authority in his life not only failed him but actively damaged him. He goes on to compliment Mr. Clutter as a ‘nice gentleman’ right up until he slits his throat, the reasoning of which Perry himself does not entirely comprehend. When questioned “Does severe childhood trauma lead to unknowing bursts of extreme violence?”, mental health professionals of the time emphatically replied, yes.
Dick, even harder to feel any empathy for, being an abrasive pedophile, suffered a brain injury in a car accident many years earlier. His family described him as a “different boy” afterwards. It goes without saying his brain injury went unexamined. This is hardly a passing problem either, since our favorite national sport is scarring its players’ brains on the regular, and violence as result of brain trauma is something we need to address very soon. Should already be addressing much better than we are.
But the why’s do not help answer the question of what should have been done with the two of them. The cop-out answer is that we, as a society, need to prevent them from happening in the first place. Certainly Perry at least could have been prevented. It doesn’t seem like all that much has changed in fifty years, barring perhaps the scale of violence. Mass shootings instead. We haven’t adapted to help soothe abuse ravaged minds or very specific kinds of mental illness. And again, even then, what to do when it does happen? Is there a solution beyond death or life imprisonment (in prison or a hospital) for the perpetrators? Can violently askew brains be healed?