Even today, the true-crime non-fiction novel still exudes a literary freshness, particularly the life lessons and philosophies that transcends the length and breadth of the text. Capote’s writing is a stark reminder of the absurdity of life and its cruel brevity; family love and many more in this true story, and here we pick five of the best.
- Upright people also die savage deaths:
Life’s irony is that it doesn’t matter how good-natured and people-loving you are within your community. In Holcomb, Kansas, the Clutter family was a model that everyone admired simply because of their industry, warm-heartedness, and humility despite their immense wealth – they were large-scale wheat farmers. But that did not stop their vicious murder on the early morning of November 15, 1959. The thieving murderers first slit Herbert William Clutter’s throat before shooting him dead. They also murdered his son Kenyon (14 years); daughter, Nancy (15 years), and wife, Bonnie. What for? Less than fifty dollars, a portable radio, and binoculars. Neighbors later told the author “that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing (murder) could happen to them – well it’s like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless.”
- Family is a very important thing:
The family is a significant unit of shaping an individual. Capote painstakingly exploits its relevance as a strand that either leads a person to prosperity or dooms him/her to untold grief and ultimately, ruin. The lead families in the narrative include: the “perfect” Clutter family, the broken Tex Johnson family (Perry Smith – one of the murderers’ folk – later captured, tried and hanged!), the modest Hickock family – Richard “Dick” Hickock’s relations (also one of the convicted murderers, was only 28 years when he committed the crime. Hanged!). Witnesses described the Clutter’s slain children as “exceptional, unassuming kids you wouldn’t have known they were rich or lived in such a big house.”
- Guilt can be a heavy load to carry:
We can deceive friends, relatives, and strangers; con them thinking we are smarter, but karma is unforgiving, too. Inevitably, reality and most importantly – the long arm of the law catches up with us. After Perry and Dick had murdered the Clutter family and left them in cold blood, they mistakenly assumed they would easily expunge their guilty emotions through partying and travel in Mexico. It wasn’t to be. Dick was also notorious for writing bad cheques; both had violated their parole after having served jail terms. Perry, the most introspective and conscious of the pair, constantly remarks to his accomplice, “there’s got to be something wrong with somebody who’d do a thing like that” (bind, gag, slit the throats of his victims, and later shoot them). The overwhelming weight of guilt will traumatize them till they were captured six weeks later.
- Do your hustle with absolute devotion
After the discovery of the murder of the Clutter family, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation assigned a retinue of agents to investigate the case and apprehend the murderers. The lead agent, Al Dewey “was professionally qualified to cope with even as intricate an affair, as the apparently motiveless, all but clueless Clutter murders.”. Summarily, Dewey and his partners were going to start from scratch and chase all manner of clues, hints; move from one state to another looking for possible suspects; conceptualize different theories to piece together a crime that “stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers”. What follows is a relentless manhunt and questioning of Holcomb residents, a task that takes a heavy toll of Dewey’s young family, but he doesn’t give up. Until victory day.
- The law remains an ass:
Even after Perry’s and Dick’s confession of slaying the Clutters, the Kansas State still accorded them a fair hearing through legal representation (paid for by the state) as mandated by law. And despite the jury’s verdict that found the defendants “guilty of murder in the first degree” and sentenced them to hang, the pair doggedly appealed their sentence, evading execution – what inmates call The Corner – a record three times until the night of April 14, 1965 when they finally paid for their crimes. In a nutshell, the law never discriminates: innocent until proven guilty dictum will always apply.
Capote’s In Cold Blood is a bold and successful experiment of bringing together journalism and literature. The rich reportage (the author revealed that he wrote 8,000 pages of notes before the writing project) interwoven with literary sophistication through techniques such as flashbacks, local dialect, (internal) dialogue, foreshadowing, foregrounding (use of the characters’ letters and diaries), and the complex plot in totality qualifies the book as a masterpiece. For those with a strong inclination in journalism, but still want to pen that great novel, this is text is the real deal. It’s available online for free.
The writer is trained high school teacher and a journalist. He is a former editorial intern with The Standard.