Book Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

A Look at Capital Punishment in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

“In school we only learn to recognize the words and to spell,” Truman Capote writes in his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, “But the application of these words to real life is another thing that only life and living can give us.” Capote’s book explores the events leading up to and following the savage murders of four members of the Clutter family by ex-convicts Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. As we learn more about the murderers and the lives they led prior to committing this heinous crime, Capote presses some of the most profound questions about empathy and moral judgment. Specifically, he examines Smith and his tragic upbringing, finding it “possible to look at the man… without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.”

Capote offers no easy answers to the difficult questions In Cold Blood raises. Rather, he lets his layers of exploration speak for itself, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the Clutter family, the town of Holcomb, and ultimately, Hickock and Smith. At the time of its publication fifty-five years ago, In Cold Blood was an instant success, mainly because nonfiction had previously never been presented in the form of a novel before, but Capote’s in-depth storytelling helped to pioneer the true crime genre of creative nonfiction. Through extensive research boasting 8,000 pages of notes, a series of personal interviews, and a cleverly interwoven story that includes three distinct narratives, Capote manages to fully present all sides in an eloquent, prose-like manner.

In Cold Blood presents a moving portrayal of the Clutter family and how there has never been “a word against them,” how they were the “least likely to be murdered.” This makes the violence of their death all the more disheartening. In Cold Blood is also a desolate depiction of Holcomb specifically after the murder of the Clutters. At the story’s start, the town was “like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks,” and “drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Following the Clutters’ deaths, though, the “congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other.” In Cold Blood also exposes Hickock and Smith as not merely villains but also as people with pitiful lives, which eventually led them to make all of the wrong choices. But most importantly, In Cold Blood catapulted the debate of capital punishment to a national level due to Hickock and Smith’s convictions, which carried mandatory death sentences.

Though Capote was widely praised by most of the literary community at the time of the book’s publication, In Cold Blood received its fair share of criticism, with some questioning the narrative’s truthfulness. In particular, it was later revealed, through interviews with certain citizens of Holcomb, that some facts were changed to suit the story, certain scenes were added to embellish the narrative, and a few conversations were made-up for effect. For instance, lead investigator Alvin Dewey mentioned, after In Cold Blood’s publication, that he never went to visit the Clutters’ graves, which is a key scene towards the end of the book. Likewise, Josephine Meier, the undersheriff’s wife, also noted that she never became close to Smith, but Capote highlights their friendship, noting that Meier even held Smith’s hand on occasions when he cried in his cell.

At the time of its publication, the commercial success of the book pushed the public to not want to “discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that,” as noted by true crime writer Jack Olsen. As a result, while these discrepancies were noted at the time, no action was taken. In today’s creative nonfiction landscape, a book like In Cold Blood would have been fact-checked more thoroughly in order to preserve the integrity of the nonfiction genre, and it would have been done with greater ease as well, since we are living in a digital age.

Despite these drawbacks, Capote effectively reconstructs the murders through an objective portrayal of the characters. In particular, Capote portrays Hickock and Smith as merely human, and even the townspeople of Holcomb, who harbored feelings of contempt for the murderers, were “amazed to find them humanly shaped.” While a measure of sympathy is felt for Hickock and Smith due to their troubled childhood, it does not, in any way, change the fact that four innocent people were killed. Smith did not feel any remorse, stating that he didn’t “feel anything about it” despite knowing that the Clutters “had experienced prolonged terror,” that “they had suffered”. In fact, he felt “sorry for [himself]… but that’s all.”

This leaves readers with the burning question of whether empathy is “deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy” in the face of such violence. In Cold Blood left me pondering over this for weeks, and rather than arriving at a conclusion of any sort, I am only left with even more questions.

What are the right consequences for those who kill without an ounce of remorse? Will taking the lives of Hickock and Smith remedy the loss of the Clutters’ lives? If not capital punishment, then what is considered “justice” for the Clutter family?

I still do not have any concrete answers, and I do not think I ever will.

Capote uses In Cold Blood to thoroughly examine the death penalty, and though he never outwardly states it in the book, he is against it. However, the debate of capital punishment remains multifaceted because we will never be able to truly understand empathy and forgiveness, or the “application of these words to real life” without knowing how it feels to have our family cruelly ripped apart for no reason, by people who do not regret their actions. Capital punishment can be discussed indefinitely, but there are no right or wrong answers. “Only life and living can give us” the answer we are looking for.

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

           In her second novel, Gillian Flynn explores 1980s rural America in the midst of the Satanic cult hysteria. In particular, Dark Places portrays the haunting yet unintended ramifications of immense poverty with a suspenseful and captivating narrative that highlights the class issues, marital abuse, and abandonment that ultimately destroyed one family.

            As the sole survivor of her family’s murder at the hands of her older brother, Libby Day is now a struggling adult who is unable to move on with her life due to the emotional trauma she suffered because of her mother, Patty Day, and sisters’ deaths. As a result of her tragic circumstances, Libby describes herself as unlovable, with a “grudging curve of the lips where a smile” should be:

           I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.

           At first glance, she is characterized as an untrustworthy and selfish young woman who turns to exploiting her family’s death for money by attending a meeting at the “Kill Club,” which consists of a group of overly enthusiastic individuals obsessed with notorious crimes. More specifically, there is a group that believes Libby’s older brother, Ben Day, who was accused of murdering her mother and sisters, is innocent. Though she initially refuses to recall the horrific events of January 3, 1985, Libby is soon driven into revisiting the case in a desperate attempt to earn some more money in order to survive.

            One of the things that stands out the most in Dark Places is the different points of view and flashbacks that Flynn uses to lead the reader through the narrative. Typically, in fiction, authors tend to stick to just one point of view – whether that’s first-person point of view or third person limited point of view – but Dark Places is told through interchanging perspectives. The novel opens with Libby’s first-person account of her life in the present, but as the story progresses, the reader is also introduced to Patty and Ben’s perspectives through third person limited flashbacks, which detail crucial events that eventually lead to the haunting murders of the Day family.

            Through these flashbacks, the reader meets a string of other possible suspects, such as Runner Day – Libby’s deadbeat father, Krissi Cates – the girl who accused Ben of molesting her when she was ten, Diondra Wertzner – Ben’s high school girlfriend, and Trey Tampano – Diondra’s cousin. At the same time, Libby learns of the additional suspects and the events of the past, albeit a little later than the reader. Though the author risks giving the reader more knowledge than the narrator, Flynn maintained a skillful balance, and as such, she effectively amplified the suspense that drove the mystery forward, urging readers to continue turning the pages in a race to see who will uncover the true murderer first – the reader or Libby? 

            The abruptness of these shifting perspectives, as well as the time jumps from past to present should have been jarring, but Flynn makes it work for this particular novel, since she breaks these accounts up into very easy-to-follow chapters. Most importantly, these shifts in perspective and time contribute to the overall haunting portrayal of the Day family’s desperate circumstances. While Libby’s point of view adds to the overall suspense of the story by pushing readers to want to find out the true murderer, both Patty and Ben’s sides of the story portray the desolation and hopelessness that plagued their family as a result of their immense poverty.

             Aside from its less-traditional structure, another storytelling aspect that Flynn executes impressively in Dark Places is characterization, but most specifically, the juxtaposition of Libby and Krissi’s characters. Despite having only heard his voice on the night of the murders, Libby is inevitably steered by law enforcement officials to implicate and testify that she had seen her brother at the scene of the murders, since Ben was the easiest and most obvious suspect, fitting into the community’s preconceived Satanic cult hysteria narrative:

“I know this is hard for you, Libby, but if you say it, say it aloud, you will help your mom and sisters, and you will help yourself start to heal. Don’t bottle it up, Libby, don’t bottle up the truth. You can help us make sure Ben is punished for what he did to your family.”

           On that same note, Krissi was steered by psychologists to accuse Ben of sexual abuse, despite that not being the whole truth:

              “You seem like a smart, brave girl. I’m relying on you to tell me what happened. Oh, nothing happened? Gosh, I thought you were braver than that. I was really hoping you’d be brave enough to help me out on this.”

           The authorities’ preconceived notions about Ben’s character played a huge role into his wrongful accusation on both accounts, and Flynn uses both Libby and Krissi’s similarities and differences to highlight a haunting phenomenon that brings to light the shortcomings of the justice system, particularly in cases in which biases have already been formed prior to any evidence or testimonies.

           One of the drawbacks in Dark Places comes from Flynn’s excess details of carnage, or more specifically, animal sacrifice. These events add to the Satanic cult hysteria culture that surrounded rural American in the 1980s and highlighted its significance in the town’s and Ben’s backstory. However, rather than focusing too much on the “devil worship,” the story could have benefited from more internalization from Libby’s perspective, so that the readers can witness her growth throughout the events of the narrative. Flynn’s structure allowed for detailed flashbacks that painted a very vivid image of the murders, but at the same time, Libby’s arc, including the moment in which her character grows or changes, is severely undermined because the readers are distracted by the gruesome details of Ben’s past.

            Despite these slight shortcomings, Flynn still does a marvelous job in creating a believable world that is driven by suspense. Although all of the characters have many faults, Flynn’s storytelling makes the reader care about the fates of everyone, which helped to drive the story forward. In addition, through Dark Places, Flynn explores the many flaws of the justice system, particularly in an impoverished community driven by moral panic surrounding Satan worship. The culmination of all of these factors resulted in a chilling yet enjoyable story.