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By Violet Pask March 24, 2015

To Ask and to Answer: “Frictional Interplay” in In Cold Blood.

This essay is part of a series entitled The American Gothic: A TRANS– Discourse. Click the link for a description of the series and links to all the essays.

Despite the controversy surrounding its label as “non-fiction,” Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was a revolutionary novel. Capote’s questionably true account of an American tragedy is considered to be a pioneering work in the true-crime genre and the first “non-fiction novel.” In Cold Blood was published in its entirety in 1966 after originally being serialized in The New Yorker in four separate parts. It tells of the events surrounding the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Upon hearing about the quadruple murder, Capote travelled to Holcomb with fellow writer and close friend Harper Lee in order to write about it. Together, they interviewed the community as well as investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. The killers were caught six weeks after the murder, and Capote took ultimately six years to write the novel in its entirety. 

In Cold Blood offers great insight not only into the town of Holcomb, its inhabitants, and the investigators, but most importantly into the minds of murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith: this novel humanizes the perpetrators in a way no other crime novel had done in the past. We follow Hickock and Smith as they escape across the country and into Mexico, before returning to the U.S. and to their eventual capture. It is through these characters and situations that the reader can gain any type of insight into the nature of American violence.  

The novel has been subject to controversy because of its grounding in Capote’s subjectivity, which, in the eyes of some readers, can lead to a skewed version of the truth. Many readers wonder what in the novel is the truth, and what was fabricated by Capote. The novel poses many questions without giving answers, and although it is presented as the truth, I believe it also serves as a reminder to question “the truth”, and asks whether it is possible to ever truly have a definitive answer. 

Attempts to classify Dick and Perry as mentally ill, or as victims of their pasts, still do not explain their violent acts, and the book suggest that perhaps there is no explanation.  Dick and Perry themselves lack an explanation, evident in Perry’s statement to Don Cullivan, a friend from the army: “I wonder why I did it. […] I don’t know why. […] And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like other people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.” (290).

Dick and Perry believe that they have been cheated out of the American Dream, that they deserve more than what they have come to have: “Why should that sonofabitch have everything, while he had nothing? Why should that ‘big shot bastard’ have all the luck?” (201) Dick thinks while watching an older, rich man have suntan oil rubbed on his body by a young woman.  “With a knife in his hand, he, Dick, had the power” (201). Both of their beliefs that the lives they are living are not the ones that they deserve stem from this idea of the American Dream, where we are all brought up to believe that we could have anything and everything, and when we don’t, people blame themselves or the world around them. In the case of Dick and Perry, the blame immediately shifts outward, and can be seen in the irony of their literal destruction of the American Dream in their killing of the Clutter family. For Dick, it seems like a chance to exert power that he lacks elsewhere in his life, power that he has been told by society that he deserves to have: “The glory of having everyone at his mercy, that’s what excited him” (239). 

We can see throughout the novel the prevalence of violence in society, not just confined to the crime committed by Dick and Perry. We see it in the death penalty when Perry says “Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom” (189). The death penalty is seen as just a more socially acceptable manifestation of the violence in American society. Perry articulates this when asked if he feels bad about what he has done, if he has any remorse, and he replies “Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill – a lot easier than passing a bad check,” (291). This novel seems to be asking what the difference is between these kinds of violence, where it is socially acceptable or unacceptable, and when taking someone’s life constitutes as murder or justice. We can truly see this in a conversation between two witnesses of the trial. When one man deems the trial unfair, the other man says  “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard [Perry]. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood” (113) and the first man responds “Yeah, and what about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddamn cold blooded too,” (113). 

Violence seems to pervade every aspect of society, whether through the stories we read of those on death row with Dick and Perry, through the death penalty, or its prevalence in the news: “Just during the few days leading up to this trial, at least three mass murder cases broke into the headlines. As a result, this crime and trial are just one of the many such cases people have read about and forgotten…” (272). Does this prevalence of violence in our culture create a desensitization to violence, or is it just a response to a deep seated curiosity?  In Cold Blood explores this idea through the population of Holcomb, as well as through the reader and the idea of crime novels themselves. The people of Holcomb quickly become obsessed with the identity of the killer, immediately distrustful of each other and convinced it is one of them. Upon learning the true perpetrators of the crime, many of the townspeople are disappointed, if not disbelieving that it was not one of them: “the majority of Holcomb’s population […] appeared to feel disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves. Indeed, a sizeable faction refused to accept the fact that two unknown men, two thieving strangers, were solely responsible.” A resident of Holcomb, Mrs. Clare stated “Maybe they did it, these fellows. But there’s more to it than that,” (231). These sentiments directly reflect upon the readers, who have been reading until this point in the hopes of understanding this crime, only to find that there is nothing to understand, that there isn’t “more to it than that.” Although the reader knows from the beginning who has committed the crime, we are wrapped up in the same curiosity as the townspeople in wondering why and how, both wanting an explanation and a gory description. Other crime novels serve to satisfy our curiosity about violence, about the gory details, but Capote wants us to question our own curiosity. He seems to be playing with us, reminding us that we are just like the people of Holcomb, and by leaving these non-answers until the end, reflecting our own curiosities back at us.

Although this novel gives a certain amount of insight into the nature of American violence, it also serves to tell us that there aren’t always clear answers. In this way, Capote’s subjectivity becomes another method of showing that getting answers is more complex than we believe or want it to be, if it is even truly possible. The novel serves therefore as a written gothumentary in its questioning of the ability of “evidence” to give us any answers, and in asking more than answering. As much as we believe we understand Dick and Perry, in our inability to understand their actions, we are forced to see what we can never truly understand. . Capote explores the many ways in which we try and explain this crime, whether through Dick and Perry’s mental instabilities or their traumatic pasts, or the idea that there must be something more, something that we are missing in our attempts at an explanation. This novel remains chilling to this day as a more in-depth analysis of a crime, different than what we read in the newspapers and see on TV. Capote’s subjectivity gives these characters life on the page, and the story continues to reflect back onto society and the reader. It’s terrifying because it is real, and we can see the reality in what we’re reading and in the world around us. It’s terrifying because it’s telling us that maybe there are no explanations, no answers, which we humans seek so desperately in our attempts to categorize everything. Although this novel allows for some glimpses into the nature of American violence, it does this more so by the questions it raises than by the answers it gives. Harlan Ellison’s quotes Rollo May in his short story The Wimper of Whipped Dogs as an attempt to explain American violence: “When inward life dries up, when feeling decreases and apathy increases, when one cannot affect or even genuinely touch another person, violence flares up as a daimonic necessity for contact, a mad drive forcing touch in the most direct way possible,” (Ellison, 19). This quote speaks not only to Dick and Perry, but to American society as a whole, where attempts to reach out often seem to transform into acts of violence. These ideas serve as speculations, not as answers, but they carry as much meaning as any explanation could. If even Dick and Perry cannot explain their actions, where the death of the entire Clutter family seems to have come down to a game of chicken (“But I didn’t mean it. I meant to call his bluff, make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward,” Perry explains in his killing of Mr. Clutter), then how can anybody explain it? All we can do is reflect on it, by letting this novel serve as a reminder of what our society is capable of producing. What we see on TV and read in the newspapers gives us no insight, only facts that we are not meant to question. We are presented with another tragedy, not a systemic failure in our society. Although this novel focuses on an isolated incident, it shows what TV and news coverage cannot: that these are not isolated incidents, but an epidemic in our society. When asked about his lack of remorse, Perry says “Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean – I’m not. I don’t feel anything about it. I wish I did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit. […] Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself” (291). Here, his insight into himself is profoundly disturbing, not because of his lack of remorse, but because of the reflection back onto the reader. Maybe we are all only human enough to feel sorry for ourselves.  

About the author

Violet Pask is a student in Cinema Video Communications and she'll try to invite you to the oscar after party when she's a famous filmmaker.

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