In the ongoing debate about whether nature or nurture is the primary force shaping a person's character, Capote comes down firmly on the side of nurture and environment in his book In Cold Blood. His portrayal of Perry Smith, the crippled killer with a nightmarish childhood, is highly sympathetic. Capote argues, none too subtly, that Smith had significant potential for a constructive life had he not been abused, neglected, and disenfranchised. In detailing his sympathies for Smith, it is clear that Capote identifies and empathizes with Smith personally. But Capote's questioning of the relevance and righteousness of small-town values and priorities could be his own angry criticism of the world he himself inhabited: a false meritocracy in which his talents were inadequate unless accompanied by a biting, unrelenting charm. Capote depicts the hypocrisy of Smith and Hickock's trial and execution with similar precision; murder by an individual was illegitimate, but murder by the state was an accepted, even necessary means of satisfying a sense of reckoning and restoring order.
Perry Smith is in many ways the central character of the book. He confesses to killing all four members of the Clutter family, a fact he later denies and then reiterates. Capote is most interested in the trajectory of Smith's life toward this final, fatal deed, and the people, events, and conditions that shape his course. The question of whether Smith is doomed from the start, or whether, as Willie Jay believed, there was something "savable" about him, is answered by Capote through his inclusion of various letters and biographical sketches written by Smith and those who knew him, who attest to both his violent temper and his latent sensitivity. Capote purposefully makes clear that Smith is, as Helen Garson noted in her book Truman Capote, a "strange, psychopathic mixture of vicious killer and compassionate protector'' by detailing the touching manner in which he bound his victims. Smith placed a pillow under Kenyon Clutter's head, a mattress box under Herb Clutter's body, and tucked Bonnie and Nancy Clutter into their beds after tying them. Garson also notes that Capote as narrator agrees with the views of psychiatrists he quotes that Smith, in killing Herb Clutter, was most likely exacting revenge on a ‘‘key figure in some past traumatic configuration.’’ In fact, Smith himself admits, "Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it’’—it being a lifetime of mistreatment. Smith's desire for revenge against his abusers is rendered not only understandable, but acceptable.
In destroying the Clutters, Smith is extinguishing not only the image and reality of all that he was denied, but the most respectable figures in an emblematically close-knit, vindictive community. George Steiner, in his 1965 review in The Guardian , describes the America that judges and ‘‘wastes human possibilities on a formidable scale.’’ In this unforgiving setting, "If a man falls off the escalator of American economic and social achievement, there is a grey turbulence of petty crime, illiterate sex, and aimless drifting waiting to absorb him,’’ Steiner concludes. Hickock and Smith originally went to prison for petty theft, an unfortunate circumstance that hemmed-in the rest of their lives. The degree of Smith and Hickock's indifference is seen when Hickock swerves to hit, not avoid, a dog, and when Smith explains that he thought Herb Clutter was a very decent, nice man, "right up until the moment I cut his throat.’’ Hickock does in fact refine his petty criminal behavior, developing a talent for passing bad checks, bedding married women, and "passing" in the world of decent humanity, while Smith develops...
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an incongruous aversion to drinking, indiscriminate sex, and unnecessary theft, although he is gripped with a wanderlust that prevents his commitment to any home or person. Once they had fallen off the generic, automated mechanism of upward mobility toward the American dream, the barriers to reentry were too high to scale again, and, Capote implies, not interesting to Smith and Hickock.
Herb Clutter, for his part, did not actively resist the order of his killers, not because he was weak or afraid, but, as Diana Trilling puts it in ‘‘Capote's Crime and Punishment," "It was apparently inconceivable to Mr. Clutter...that the two men might do worse than rob them, harm them.’’ His passivity can be read as naiveté or as complacency born of the belief that he was invincible, that the path forged by a lifetime of hard work, piety, and moral rectitude could not possibly have intersected with this criminal element. Mrs. Ashida, a friend, had declared to Herb Clutter earlier that day, "No matter what happened, you'd talk your way out of it.’’ Not only did Clutter fail to do so, his family failed to do anything to save themselves, and his one on-site employee did not hear any gunshots even though he was awake all night tending a sick child. To hear such a sound would require an embryonic belief that a gunshot could occur. Their unwavering faith in the inherent safety of their situation kept the Clutters from locking doors, getting a proper guard dog, or resisting the intruders.
The book is ultimately a condemnation of society' s treatment of its children, and its unwillingness to forgive those outside the boundaries of acceptable definition. Capote's portrayal of Smith as the victim of a self-righteous society reveals his own rejection of conformity and his identification with the antagonist antihero. Smith's primary fault, Capote believes, is not being a criminal, but attempting to change the path set by childhood trauma and familial abuse and defy the characterization of himself by others. If Smith is not mentally ill, Capote believes that he has dormant violent tendencies, like everyone, which were fed a steady diet by a history of humiliating experiences—until he explodes in a misdirected, fatal fury. Capote's indifference to the staid, predictable life of the Clutters supports his sympathetic portrayal of Smith. He does not valorize Smith or lionize the Clutters, but he endorses Smith's attempts to escape the stock characterization of problem child, juvenile delinquent, and finally, career criminal. He does not similarly endorse the Clutters' existence: Herb Clutter is a two-dimensional Everyman, icon of the American dream and the Puritan work ethic. Ultimately, Herb Clutter cannot escape Smith's stereotypical characterization of him as a potentially judgmental, hypervigilant, self-righteous tormentor.
Dead animals are a motif directly related to the notion of communal retribution. The animals in Capote's text are scavengers, defenseless victims, or mere fantasies. They are the tomcats looking for birds caught in car grilles, the dog that Hickock runs over, the warriorbird that rescues Smith from abusers, and in a sense, Smith and Hickock, and Capote himself. Smith can be compared to the coyotes that, in the rural Midwest, are shot and hung on ranch fences to deter other coyotes. According to Brian Coniff, in The Midwest Quarterly, ‘‘Because a common 'normalcy' ultimately depends upon the complete exclusion of 'outsiders,' the exorcism of these 'mysterious animals' is just as important as their discovery and capture.’’ The community needs vengeance to heal the rent in its smug insularity and finds that Hickock and Smith, as the confessed killers, will be the perfect sacrifice. Coniff notes, however, that Smith and Hickock cannot be responsible for the excessive hostility in the community toward outsiders and toward one another.
Paradoxically, he asserts, the community is looking for "a criminal without and a criminal within, a guilty alien and a guilty neighbor.’’ Understandably then, they are disappointed to see that Smith and Hickock look so similar to and, at the same time, so different from them. While they needed to brand and punish an outsider, they secretly wished to possess a known entity on whom they could deposit their personal sins.
Capote's frustration at this sort of unforgiving, self-righteous condemnation of outsiders manifests itself in this book. Josephine Hendin calls Capote a "depression freak'' whose anger, unlike that of a criminal psychopath, does not manifest in violent acts but is ‘‘muted to pessimism and discontent.’’ Richard Poirer theorizes that Capote's writing seeks to "usurp the authority of accepted versions'' of events. Capote was most certainly looking to subvert the accepted version of the Clutter murders as an incomprehensible, tragic event. His presentation of Smith and his life story asks, is it not obvious, even predictable, that such a thing would happen?
Capote's sympathetic treatment of the pious, generous family is laced with contempt, according to Hendin, and his own ‘‘rage takes the form of despair over the possibilities for life,’’ the life in question being Smith's. The true tragedy, according to Capote, is not the Clutter murders, which are an accident of fate, but the murder of Smith by a society that failed him as a child and shunned him as an adult. The fact that Capote puts forth several theories about why Smith and Hickock murdered the Clutters indicates that he would like to find a reason why they did what they did. He offers several possibilities: an ill-fated crossing of paths, a psychological accident, mental illness, or displaced revenge. He provides these theories with an air of legitimacy, and like a good southern Gothic writer, with a sense of the grotesque suddenly in proportion, making perfect sense.
Capote's identification with Smith exists on several levels. He empathizes with Smith's desire to escape his broken family history, to leave behind his twisted roots, and to enter and be accepted in a different social sphere. Capote's mother committed suicide; Smith's mother choked on her own vomit. Smith resents his one surviving sister for having escaped a brutal end and finding social legitimacy; she is married with two children, living in a house guarded by the standard white picket fence. Capote, like Smith, came from a broken home, had no mother, and longed for celebrity. He did not complete his education, barely finishing high school, while Smith left school after the third grade.
At the end of his life, Capote had been inducted into the world of fame and high society, but it was a false world of celebrities in which he was only a trophy, fashionable but marginal, and he was ultimately expelled from it for gossiping about them in print. When he recounted in writing what he and many others had gossiped in each other's ears, they considered it a betrayal; he, like Smith, was purged from the ranks to restore a sense of security and reckoning. In a sense, his celebrity seemed to make him even more sympathetic to the killers: why should he, also the product of a broken home, an outcast, without a complete formal education, run in such inflated circles while Smith did not?
To read In Cold Blood as a condemnation of a soulless middle-America is both legitimate and limited, but Capote's sympathies for Smith are obvious. Perhaps portraying Smith in such a manner provided Capote with a much-needed and perfectly oblique means of catharsis and finger-pointing. Smith and Hickock are almost perfect illustrations of Dickens' child symbols Ignorance and Want in ‘‘A Christmas Carol.’’ Like Dickens, Capote accuses society of producing such children and proclaims that continued neglect will produce only doom. If Capote desired to subvert the common morality tale with his novelization of the Clutter murders, he did so masterfully. If he intended to report a poetic, dramatized, but unbiased account of the murders, he, regrettably, failed.
Source: Lydia Kim, Critical Essay on In Cold Blood, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Kim is an instructor of English literature and composition.
In early studies of the new journalism and the nonfiction novel, critics have sought to identify the fictional techniques that make the nonfiction novel "read" like a novel. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe speaks of the realistic novel's ‘‘emotional involvement,’’ or its "gripping" and "absorbing" quality. Perhaps the most often cited of these devices of realism, according to Wolfe, is ‘‘scene by scene reconstruction and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narration.’’ The supposed effect on the reader is a reconstruction of events with full dialogue and psychological depth, without the anonymous summary or narration of traditional journalism.
More recent readers of Capote's In Cold Blood have discussed the degree of closure and resolution such scenes achieve with respect to reading the overall meaning of the Clutter murders. Brian Conniff, for example, examines the crucial role of what he calls psychological accidents in the recreation of the crimes and Capote's overall narrative plan, while Phyllis Frus adopts the opposing view that Capote's method allows for the murders to be explained and rationalized within a framework of middle-class ideology and psychological analysis. I want to explore the category of ‘‘meaningful design,’’ apparently drawn from Detective Dewey's verbal world, since it strategically offers an explanatory framework for understanding murder. In fact, the careful construction of the confession, trial, and execution scenes refers to this standard, one that promises to resolve vexing questions for readers of In Cold Blood. Capote's strategy, however, is to raise the possibility of rational order without ever fully endorsing it, often revealing that random and accidental events shape the history of the crime. Capote's narrative method also emphasizes two language systems—the first based on punishment, the second on psychological analysis of personality— that demonstrate opposing ways of judging human behavior. This conflict undermines any straightforward rational design for comprehending murder or its punishment. To evaluate these issues of closure and meaning in In Cold Blood, I examine three critical scenes in detail—the confessions of the killers, the courtroom verdicts, and the executions—to provide the best opportunity to identify a totalized, clear sense of an ending.
Until Part 3 of the book, "Answer," Capote's method emphasizes the mysterious, evasive nature of the crimes and their effects on the townsfolk of Holcomb, Kansas. The three scenes I have selected are presented through the eyes of Alvin Dewey, the law-and-order hero of the book. Since Capote's narrative method does not allow the author to speak in his own, first-person voice, Dewey acts as the central intelligence guiding our integration of plot elements. The reader is likely to identify with Dewey's viewpoint as she identifies with Dewey's search for design, since it will presumably create an explanatory framework that will allow her to understand the bizarre murders. These three scenes provide a basis for reading the murders, for placing them within a coherent design for In Cold Blood as a whole. The narrative promises to create an understanding of the crimes and get to the bottom of the killers' motives—if not through the legal system, then perhaps through the process of psychological analysis. Dewey's role is critical, since his motives and desires allow readers to identify with the eventual capture and punishment of the suspects.
The confession scene develops in "Answer" when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are arrested in Las Vegas as their cross-country ride comes to an end; Capote signals the arrival of a dramatic climax in which we may find out "what really happened.'' It is useful to study the staging words and interviews in some depth, both for the portrait of Dewey's actions, and for our understanding of the motivation and possible logic behind the crimes. First, recall that Capote's narrative strategy left the black Chevrolet frozen in moonlight in the Clutter driveway on the night of the murders, but the murders have never been described ‘‘in real time.’’ Second, the confession scene promises to release pent-up curiosity about the crimes, which up to this point have been presented as motiveless and inexplicable. Our anticipation takes its cue from Dewey's solemn vow when first encountering the murder scene: "However long it takes, it may be the rest of my life, I'm going to know what happened in that house: the why and the who.’’
Dewey's thoughts about the case suggest a rational framework for understanding murder—a meaningful design. The possibility of this design comes from the general human need for meaning and the specific need for closure, to put an ending to a series of plausible, yet always puzzling, explanations. Second, Capote's strategy raises the possibility of design and meaning by strengthening the reader's identification with Detective Dewey, who dominates every phase of the case. What I propose is to examine the confession, the trial, and the execution scenes against the standard of meaning Dewey envisions. Capote's treatment of this complex standard of resolution is linked to any interpretation of In Cold Blood and its overall aesthetic effects.
One test to apply to the confession and the trial scenes is the extent to which rational explanation— the why and the who—appears in the final revelation of the crimes in "Answer." On December 30, 1959, after more than six weeks of cluelessness and frustration, Dewey learns of Hickock and Smith's arrest in Las Vegas. While this should be an occasion for joy in the Dewey family, Alvin remains pessimistic that the case will finally be solved since the physical evidence is slim: ‘‘Yes, a big lot of good they [photographs of bloody footprints] are...unless those boys still happen to be wearing those boots that made them.’’ Reflecting on the flimsy evidence as he dresses for a quick departure for Las Vegas with his three Kansas Bureau of Investigation partners, Dewey tells his wife the only interviewing strategy he can think of: ‘‘the name Clutter has to hit them like a hammer, a blow they never knew was coming.’’ Such a statement anticipates a fierce struggle between law enforcement and criminals who had hoped to leave no clues behind.
Capote allows the why of the crimes to play itself out slowly, since at first the two suspects are allowed to believe they have been arrested for minor violations of parole and hot check writing. In Capote's chosen order, Hickock is the first to be interrogated by agents Church and Nye. After pursuing the checkwriting incidents in Kansas City, Church mentions the weekend of November 14-15, while Hickock rambles on with a prepared false alibi about traveling to Fort Scott to see Smith's sister and picking up two prostitutes. By allowing Hickock to exhibit ‘‘his one true gift’’ of recollection, the detectives let him go on to name all the roads, hotels, and highways from Kansas to Florida, and back through Texas to Nevada. Nye then zeroes in on him: ‘‘I guess you realize we wouldn't have come all the way to Nevada to chat with a couple of twobit check chiselers.’’ Capote cites the detectives' contemporaneous notes of the moment when Nye mentions the name "Clutter": "Suspect underwent an intense visible reaction. He turned gray.’’ The two detectives then deliver a blow intended to shatter Hickock's alibi:
But you made two mistakes, Dick. One was, you left a witness. A living witness. Who'll testify in court. Who'll stand in the witness box and tell a jury how Richard Hickock and Perry Smith bound and gagged and slaughtered four helpless people.
While he is visibly rattled, Hickock still denies any knowledge of the murders. Detectives Nye and Church decide to cut off the interview, allowing him to brood over his guilt and a possible death sentence. Capote's interest lies in the methods of trapping suspects and forcing a confession. His goal is to dramatize the pressure applied by the detectives and Dick's wavering motives for confessing or withholding information.
When first confronted with the idea of a witness, Hickock thinks of an eyewitness—someone who actually saw the crime—and he soon remembers his old cellmate, Floyd Wells, but dismisses any danger figuring that "the sonofab— was probably expecting some fancy reward.’’ Detectives finally break down Dick's protestations of innocence, however, by showing him large ‘‘one to one’’ blowup photographs of the bloody footprints from the murder scene, and he quickly realizes that Smith is the one witness who could damage him the most: "It was Perry he ought to have silenced. On a mountain road in Mexico. Or while walking across the Mojave.'' When Hickock contemplates the photographs of the crime scene and considers their use in court, he blurts out: '‘Perry Smith killed the Clutters...It was Perry. I couldn't stop him. He killed them all.’’ The interrogation of Hickock reflects his desire to hold out in the face of his fear of Smith and the physical evidence. He attempts to exculpate himself by declaring that he did not actually kill any member of the family. Capote shows Hickock's thinking as he falls back on the claim that he did not actually pull the trigger, and therefore should not be charged with first-degree murder.
Capote soon switches the interrogation to Smith, since his version of events promises to answer Dewey' s questions about motive. Following a similar reconstructive method throughout, Capote develops Smith's testimony more completely than Hickock's, reporting in the present tense to intensify the immediacy. After more than three hours of questioning, Agent Duntz tells Smith that on November 14, "You were killing the Clutter family'', but Smith stubbornly sticks to the cover story about Fort Scott and the prostitutes. Finally, Dewey decides to cut the interview off, leaving Smith with the guilt-inducing knowledge that the next day would have been Nancy Clutter's birthday: '‘She would have been seventeen.’’
In portraying Smith in this section, Capote uses the most controversial technique of the nonfiction novel. Instead of quoting directly or using typical journalistic attribution, he adopts a point of view coming from inside the suspect's mind. While it seems as if an omniscient author has access to his private thoughts, everything Smith "thinks" came from extensive interviews Capote conducted much later on Death Row. Here Smith worries about Hickock's ability to hold out against sharp interrogation.
...well, he damn near died, that's all. He must have lost ten pounds in two seconds. Thank God he hadn't let them see it. Or hoped he hadn't. And Dick? Presumably they'd pulled the same stunt on him. Dick was smart, a convincing performer, but his "guts" were unreliable, he panicked too easily. Even so, and however much they pressured him, Perry was sure that Dick would hold out.
While Smith avoids confessing in Las Vegas, he finally breaks down and tells the ‘‘whole story’’ during his transport back to Kansas. Dewey inadvertently tells Smith that Hickock has spoken of "King," a black man whom Smith supposedly whipped to death in a false story he made up to impress Hickock. At first, Smith cannot believe Hickock has confessed to any involvement in the Clutter case: '‘I thought it was a stunt. I didn't believe you. That Dick let fly. The tough boy!''. But the revelation about the King story becomes a critical signal, because if Hickock ever confessed, '‘dropped his guts all over the g—dd—n floor—I knew he'd tell about the nigger.''
This revelation launches Smith's narration into the events on the night of the murders. Dewey is attentive, having sworn to himself long ago to learn every detail of the murders, hoping for a coherent story to resolve his doubts and earlier confusion. Since the outset of the long investigation of the senseless murders, the reader follows Dewey's reactions with hope that the dramatic highlights of the book will occur in this scene. As Dewey performs the repellent act of lighting cigarettes for the handcuffed Smith, the two factors that dominate the story of the night of the murders are the bickering and macho posturing of the two men, and the obvious fact that Mr. Clutter kept no safe at his house.
Far from being a portrayal of two homicidal maniacs on a rampage, what is striking about Smith's narrative are odd moments of quiet, moments of hesitation when the whole scheme might have been ended without anyone dying. In the driveway, both men swig from a bottle of whiskey; Hickock says, 'I'll show you who's got guts,'' as the two muster courage for tying and gagging each member of the family, the women upstairs and Kenyon and Mr. Clutter in the basement. When it becomes apparent that there is no office safe, and Smith understands that the "big score'' is a bust, he reports wanting just to leave the house: '‘Why don't I walk off? Walk to the highway, hitch a ride. I sure Jesus did not want to go back in that house.'' But there is an odd magnet, according to Smith, almost as if he is watching someone other than himself: "It was like I wasn't part of it. More as though I was reading a story. And I had to know what was going to happen. The end.'' Seeing himself in the role of spectator is a bizarre feature of Smith's narration, implying that he is watching some other person commit the crimes.
This curious dissociation of thoughts and emotions from actions permeates much of Smith's account of the night of November 14. Later, in the psychiatric analysis, it will be presented as a case of Smith's ‘‘magical thinking,’’ his uncanny ability to separate and distance himself from events and action, as if he were watching a movie in which he was a character. Early on, Perry talks of shaking down Nancy Clutter's room and the shame of searching for her souvenir silver dollar: ‘‘...it rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick...Dick, and all his talk about a rich man's safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child's silver dollar.’’ Again, Capote's report of Smith's confession emphasizes the feeling of being ‘‘outside himself,’’ as if he were watching some "movie." Capote dwells on the silver dollar incident because Smith himself understands it as a symbol of the absurdity of the theft, a shameful reminder of pointless torture and murder.
Despite the high points of action in Smith's story—the killing of Mr. Clutter, the rapid shotgun blasts—the length of time in the house with strange moments of quiet lead us to a discomfiting series of what ifs. Readers are cued to wait for a design that will explain the motive for the murders. For example, Smith tells of ordering Hickock to leave Nancy's room for '‘that's something I despise. Anybody that can't control themselves sexually.’’ Yet when Dick leaves the room, Perry has a surreal yet quite "normal" conversation with a girl who fears for her life:
She was trying hard to act casual and friendly. I really liked her. She was really nice. A very pretty girl, and not spoiled or anything. She told me quite a lot about herself. About school, and how she was going to go to a university and study music and art. Horses. Said next to dancing what she liked best was to gallop a horse, so I mentioned my mother had been a champion rodeo rider.
This is an odd conversation, for here is a nice girl that Perry's criminal life has never allowed him to meet and, ironically, he is able to have a friendly chat about horses in the moments just before killing her at point-blank range. Readers may have difficulty resolving such a moment with the rapid series of shotgun blasts, and the sudden flash of anger that remains uncanny.
After telling of several such moments of pause and quiet, Smith mentions the final strategy session between the two men just before the killing of Mr. Clutter, the first in the chain reaction of killing. With the lights out and the family taped and bound, Smith presents this huddle as a prelude to the actual murders:
‘Dick and I went off in a corner. To talk it over. Remember, now, there were hard feelings between us. Just then it made my stomach turn to think I had ever admired him...I said, 'Well Dick. Any qualms?' He didn't answer me. I said, 'Leave them alive, and this won'tbe any small rap. Ten years the very least.'...I asked him for [the knife], and he gave it to me, and I said, 'All right, Dick. Here goes.' But I didn't mean it. I meant to call his bluff.
Shortly after this point, Smith tells of Mr. Clutter struggling ‘‘half out of his ropes’’ and making a gurgling sound "like somebody drowning,’’ while Smith dares Hickock to finish killing him. In Smith's version, he takes the knife from Hickock and then uses the shotgun to kill Mr. Clutter to end his suffering:
‘‘Dick wanted to get the hell out of there. But I wouldn't let him go. The man would have died anyway, I know that, but I couldn't leave him like he was. I told Dick to hold the flashlight, focus it. Then I aimed the gun. The room just exploded. Went blue. Just blazed up.’’
As Smith finishes his story, Agent Dewey's ears ‘‘ring with it,’’ and he knows that he has wanted these details all along since this case had begun to dominate his life. Every event of the confessions—all the terrors of the victims, every shotgun blast—has been presented. Yet has the story actually fulfilled the design Dewey so desires? Does the scene as reported reveal the true answer of "the why and the who'' that Dewey sought? Recall that from the early scattering of disconnected clues, Dewey formulated two "concepts," one involving a single killer and another involving two or more men. These two scenarios demonstrate how even Dewey's crimesolving skills could not anticipate or comprehend what these particular killers were capable of. Because of the amount of taping and tying the family suffered, Dewey favored the "double-killer concept,'' but earlier he found it unbelievable that ‘‘'two individuals could reach the same degree of rage, the kind of psychopathic rage it took to commit such a crime.''' Even if someone had an insane rage against Herb Clutter, '‘‘where did he find a partner, someone crazy enough to help him? It doesn't add up. It doesn't make sense.'’’ And yet, as he learns from Smith, this scenario is close to what happened.
Does Smith's confession add up to a story that makes sense now? Within this matrix of common sense and reason, Dewey does not feel satisfied with the answers. Even though all the details have been revealed, the murders remain outside an explanatory or rational viewpoint based on the human need for order that dominates Capote's approach. Capote shapes In Cold Blood to present the possibility of a rational view of murder, and yet systematically denies or withdraws it. The narrative dwells on Dewey's sense of dissatisfaction, even after hearing every detail: ‘‘But the confessions, though they answered the questions of how and why, failed to satisfy [Dewey's] sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning.’’
Reviewing these moments of terror in the account Smith gives Dewey, we find a consistent failure to arrive at the ‘‘sense of meaningful design’’ Dewey is seeking. Each of the constituent elements leading to the moment of the crime is present: the failure to find a safe, the two men's anger toward each other, Smith's sense of shame, Hickock's embarrassment at not bring off ‘‘the perfect score,’’ the final thought that more prison time will surely await them if they leave witnesses and get caught. Each of these factors plays a role in the murders, yet no single motive in itself makes the killing necessary or inevitable. If any one of these elements had been missing, the murders might have been avoided; therefore, even by the end of the story things do not ‘‘add up’’ or ‘‘make sense.’’
As Brian Conniff has persuasively argued, the case would be too simple and indeed Capote's narrative would be too determined and obvious, like Dewey's two concepts, ‘‘if it were not for the intervention of certain 'accidents.'’’ Conniff goes on to show how Capote blurs the usual distinctions between good and evil. It is not excellent police work that solves the case but a ‘‘stroke of luck’’ when the convict, Floyd Wells, names Hickock. Dewey is lucky, too, that the killers are so foolish:
...by returning to their favorite hotels and continuing to pass bad checks, Smith and Hickock have just about guaranteed their own arrest outside a Las Vegas post office...[Capote's method] provides the kind of juxtapositions that make the murderers' simple incompetence all the more glaring, in contrast to the elaborate suspicions and theories fostered by the "normal" community...Perhaps it was only such events, combined with the trial and execution that would follow—in which "good" would stubbornly refuse to triumph over "evil," in which "sanity" would strangely refuse to explain and cure ‘‘insanity"—that could have forced [Capote] to question his initial design [for the book].
Such commentary sheds light on what happens in the confession scene, because all the details make clear that the mystery does not follow the classic means of solving a murder—looking for motive and opportunity, nor does it adhere to the logic of Dewey's two prior concepts. In fact, rejecting the formula resolution of most crime stories, Capote endorses no clear-cut motive or reason for the murders. Crimes of premeditation can be understood, and even crimes of passion may be comprehensible in psychological terms. As in the classic literature of American crime—in Dreiser's An American Tragedy, for example, when Clyde Griffiths' pregnant fiancée drowns when the two of them are out rowing—events seem to happen without premeditation and beyond the conscious control of human agents.
Capote's narrator apparently offers us a false certainty when he says, ‘‘the confessions...answered questions of how and why'', since a careful reader will seriously wonder if they do. A radical feature of Capote's book, one that has troubled many critics, is that the narrator never offers easy answers or a ready-made ethical framework for "understanding" the murders. Hence, readers must confront the acts of terror and violence outside the framework of rational organization, while appreciating Garden City's long-awaited return to stability, now that the perpetrators of the murders have been duly captured and jailed. As Capote sets up the equation, the dramatic work of the confessions helps establish the ground for another important scene, the trial in Garden City that once again promises to get to the bottom of the Clutter murders.
THE LAW VS. PSYCHOLOGY If the confession scene does not fully satisfy the desire for "meaningful design,'' perhaps the trial of Hickock and Smith will provide the fuller explanation of the events that resist Dewey's sense of reason. Recent perspectives on language indicate that humans construct "reality" and "truth" from the vantage point of metaphorical and language systems that control our view of the world. In the courtroom drama, for example, Capote manages to promote conflict by establishing two interpretations of the events—the first legal and restrictive, the second psychological—drawing arguments first from acts and then from a careful study of the killers' possible motivations. Both systems of language— the legal and the psychological—offer competing ways of reconstructing the past from different perspectives. The legal language focuses on action, responsibility, and laws of evidence—to determine whether the acts of murder were committed by these men. The psychological language provides psychiatric "testimony'' to explore the unconscious motives for such "motiveless’’ crimes; the psychological testimony concerns personality structure and the formative events of childhood. Embedded in the psychiatric language is a definition of sanity that implicitly challenges the legal definition at the trial, by which Kansas law reduces matters to a simple yes-or-no answer.
At first glance, the outcome of the trial appears foregone: the physical evidence, the bloody photographs, the testimony of Floyd Wells, the careful reconstruction of the crime by Alvin Dewey, and the signed confessions all point to the guilt that will allow the community to restore its sense of order, and quiet its fear by exacting guilty verdicts and the death penalty. The legal system, with its established rules of evidence, restricts what information can be presented to a jury. Crucial in this case is the M'Naghten rule, a British legal precedent stating that "if the accused knew the nature of his act, and knew it was wrong, then he is mentally competent.'' Further, as prosecutor Logan Green makes clear, specialized psychiatric testimony is not required since the determination of any family doctor will suffice: '‘Medical doctors in general practice. That's all the law requires. We have sanity hearings in this county every year.’’ This ruling restricts the ground for arguments and limits the jury's view of all potential evidence.
A more distant underpinning of the legal system is the biblical view of crime and punishment, placing the prosecutors in the role of vengeful Old Testament prophets, invoking the lex talonis. Prosecutor Green effectively uses a "reading'' of biblical passages in his summation to call for the deaths of Hickock and Smith:
But I anticipated that defense counsel would use the Holy Bible as an argument against the death penalty. You heard the Bible quoted. But I can read too...and here are a few things that the Good Book has to say on the subject. In Exodus Twenty, Verse Thirteen, we have one of the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not kill'...[and] in the next chapter, Verse Twelve, the penalty for disobedience [is]...'He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.'
While the courtroom presentation of evidence focuses on the simple knowledge of right and wrong, Capote undermines the reading of the verdicts by presenting viewpoints of those unsympathetic to the court proceedings. For example, Dick Hickock's father remarks: "That judge up there! I never seen a man so prejudiced. Just no sense having a trial.’’ The author also quotes two journalists, who comment on the "coldblooded" nature of the death penalty. As Capote often stated in interviews, the context and position of quotations help to organize the reader's sense of a scene more effectively than would authorial intrusion. Capote's quotations from the journalists show that "In Cold Blood'' applies first to the killers and then to the state.
While the trial scene is limited by restrictions of the M'Naghten rule to assess sanity, Capote's approach stresses the psychiatric examinations that were inadmissible in court. Since Capote's narrator is unfettered by any legal rulings, he relates the complex theory of Dr. W. Mitchell Jones by stating, "had Dr. Jones been allowed to speak further, here is what he would have said.’’ Jones' assessment of Dick Hickock focuses on his athletic ability and previous good health before a severe auto accident produced '"blackout spells, periods of amnesia and headaches.’’ He concludes that Hickock's personality has "typical characteristics of what psychiatrically would be called a severe character disorder,’’' and he would have urged the court to order physical examinations to rule out the possibility of "organic brain damage.'' As usual, Capote's lengthier and more penetrating presentation is devoted to psychological evidence concerning Perry Smith's early traumas and his violently explosive behavior.
Dr. Jones finds ‘‘two features in [Smith's] personality make-up stand out as particularly pathological." The first is a paranoid orientation toward social interactions: "He is suspicious and distrustful of others, tends to feel others...are unfair to him and do not understand him.’’ Related to this trait, he is ‘‘sensitive to criticism’’ and ‘‘cannot tolerate being made fun of." The second trait, related directly to the Clutter murders, concerns
rages, which he says 'mount up' in him, and...the poor control he has over them. When turned toward himself the anger has precipitated ideas of suicide...[and, at times]... his thinking [is]... lost in detail, and some of his thinking reflects a 'magical' quality, a disregard of reality.
In addition to Dr. Jones' conclusions, Capote quotes extensively from a 1960 paper by Dr. Joseph Satten and his three colleagues, ‘‘Murder without Apparent Motive—A Study in Personality Disorganization.’’ Studying the Clutter case, Dr. Satten finds that Smith's behavior conforms to a pattern of murders he had studied where the murderers suffered from ‘‘severe lapses in ego control,’’ leading to ''the open expression of primitive violence, born out of previous, and now unconscious, traumatic experiences.’’ For more than ten pages, Capote presents the behavior pattern of such murderers who, on the surface, '‘seem rational, coherent, and controlled’’ but whose crimes ‘‘have a bizarre, apparently senseless quality.’’
At the heart of Dr. Satten's theory is the idea of unconscious motivation, that a present action is determined by the repetition of some earlier, unresolved state of mental imbalance. The murderer in effect finds in the current situation a configuration that provokes a reenactment of old wrongs:
Such individuals can be considered murder-prone in the sense of carrying a surcharge of aggressive energy or having an unstable ego defense system that periodically allows the naked and archaic expression of such energy. The murderous potential can become activated, especially if some disequilibrium is already present, when the victim-to-be is unconsciously perceived as a key figure in some past traumatic configuration.
Such parallels reinforce the viewpoint that Dr. Satten "feels secure in assigning [Smith] to 'their ranks.'’’ The proposed theory suggests that Mr. Clutter ‘‘was not entirely a flesh-and-blood man [that Smith] 'suddenly discovered' himself destroying,’’ but the cumulative ghost of his father, his despised Army sergeant, the nuns who beat him, and thus all the hated authority figures from his past.
After an extended presentation of these theories, Capote examines Smith's own words, heard earlier both in the confession scene and during a meeting with Don Cullivan, his old Army buddy. In that meeting Smith describes the killing of Mr. Clutter in almost exactly the same words as in the confession scene:
I was sore at Dick.. .But it wasn't Dick. Or the fear of being identified ... And it wasn't because of anything that the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.
Capote's narrative voice concludes neutrally by showing the apparent harmony of two viewpoints, reporting that, ‘‘It would appear that by independent paths, both the professional and the amateur analyst reached conclusions not dissimilar.’’ Capote's narrator does not interpret these conclusions, but the length of time devoted to them clearly undercuts the straightforward clarity of courtroom justice.
Yet how does the psychiatric testimony work? Although it does not change anything about the laws operating in Kansas in 1960, it questions the fairness of death-penalty verdicts endorsed by the community. Readers must wonder: if Smith underwent a ‘‘brain explosion’’ at the time of murdering Mr. Clutter, how could he be held responsible? It may seem to be a clear case of temporary insanity. Capote's inherent plea for mercy, however, must later be subjected to cold-blooded facts of the murders of Herbert, Kenyon, Nancy, and Mrs. Clutter. It is clear that they are just as dead whether they were killed by Smith in an agitated state, or because he was intent on leaving no witnesses to the crime— a motive for the murders reinforced throughout ‘‘The Last to See Them Alive.’’ The weight of the psychiatric testimony does not suggest that Smith and Hickock are not guilty, but it hints that leniency or perhaps life imprisonment without parole would be a more suitable punishment, although Capote never overtly makes this argument.
EXECUTION AND FINAL MEANING The last of the trio of scenes examining the framework of a meaningful design is the execution of Hickock and Smith, depicting events at the Kansas State Penitentiary on April 14, 1965, after five years of legal appeals. As preparation for the events to come, Capote depicts the execution of Lowell Lee Andrews, a Death-Row friend of Hickock and Smith. According to Capote's narrative voice, Smith is allowed to speak a condemned man's customary last words: ‘‘'I don't believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something—.'’’ While journalist Philip Tompkins quotes others close to the scene who stated that these words were not spoken, Capote depicts Smith as both penitent and critical of the state. In interviews after the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote echoed Smith's own sense of his potential for some future contribution:
He wanted very deeply to paint and write and he also had genuine talent as a musician. He had a natural ear and could play five or six instruments; the guitar, in particular, he played extremely well. But one of the things he used to tell me over and over again was what a tragedy that...[no one] encouraged him in any single creative thing he wanted to do.
Yet when Hickock finally dies at 12:41 A.M., and Smith follows at 1:19 A.M., Capote's narrator again turns to Alvin Dewey, the same moral barometer consulted in each phase of the case. Based on comments Dewey no doubt made to Capote, Hickock remains as always ''a small-time chiseler who got out of his depth’’, and yet in death Smith possesses the "aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded.'' This last description echoes the book's earlier references to Smith's childhood and his wounded adulthood, seen through sympathetic observers like Don Cullivan, Mrs. Josie Meier in Garden City, and his prison friend Willie Jay.
The closing scene of this nonfiction novel is not the executions proper, since they, once again, fail to provide Alvin Dewey with ‘‘a sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed.’’ Capote's language suggests Aristotle's analysis of catharsis in tragedy, in which terror and pity are released in the audience by the appropriate completion of an action at the play's end. In the Clutter case, however, the accidents of a "brain explosion'' and the Clutters' accidental presence as victims, as well as Capote's emphasis on the long legal delays, all block the proper purging of the expected emotions at the completion of a well-made plot. Instead, Capote singles out Dewey's memory of a graveside meeting at River Valley Cemetery "a year earlier,’’ a chance encounter with Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter's girlhood friend who had gone on to the university to study:
Everything. Art, mostly. I love it...Nancy and I planned to go to college together. We were going to be roommates. I think about it sometimes. Suddenly, when I'm very happy, I think of all the plans we made.
After a brief discussion of Nancy's former boyfriend's marriage, and of her own plans, Dewey acknowledges ‘‘a pretty girl in a hurry’’ and he privately thinks she is "just such a young woman as Nancy might have been.’’ The scene nostalgically closes with a sense of place that recalls Capote's The Grass Harp, when Collin Fenwick is reunited with Judge Cool. Here Dewey is walking home ‘‘leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.’’ At first this scene seems a fitting way to end, something out of the world of fiction. Yet it also presents a cliché in response to death, asserting the old truism that "life goes on’’ while survivors must resolve their own searches for meaning.
This ending's strong sense of closure has seemed to certain critics to be tacked-on artificially. Apparently, Capote did not want to end on the downbeat note of the executions, which were very troubling to him after five years of close contact with the killers. Gerald Clarke's biography asserts that Capote invented this graveside scene. In Cold Blood's ‘‘one act of pure fiction,'' was revealed as such a decade after the book's publication in a letter from Sue Kidwell's mother and Alvin Dewey. This is a serious blemish on the otherwise factually accurate narrative; as Clarke notes, ‘‘since events had not provided him with a happy scene, he was forced to make one up.’’ Despite this problem of accuracy, does Capote's concluding fiction really imply that the world is restored to order, that a rational structure has been superimposed on the baffling events? Or does the scene function as a kind of musical coda that extends or modifies the formal ending as in a symphonic movement?
In closing this discussion, I want to return once again to the standard of meaningful design to assess its influence on our final interpretation of In Cold Blood. Despite the sense of closure Capote's invented ending implies, the book does not really resolve the conflicted meanings of the crimes or bring them within a larger framework that is rationalized, totalized, and complete. A strong reading of this sort is proposed by Phyllis Frus in her recent comparison of In Cold Blood with Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. She argue that Capote's novel reinforces standard class ideology by achieving a defined sense of resolution:
The narrative of In Cold Blood implies that truth is, if not simple, at least ascertainable, if we are willing to take the trouble; and that sociologists and psychiatrists have the answers to the riddle of criminal behavior. Furthermore, the reader implied by the structure of the novel learns that violent, senseless crime can be made sensible and poignant through artistic representation; and that these repulsive, illiterate, antisocial criminals are rendered as literate, talented, redeemable...In Cold Blood...assumes a world of cause and effect, of certitude, reason—in short, of common sense, and it expresses this world view via a realism characterized by verisimilitude, a historical narrator who assures the intelligibility of the text by "placing'' the other narrations, and through its strong sense of closure.
While this reading of closure and certainty of In Cold Blood raises many interesting problems, it is ultimately reductive and mistaken in terms of Capote's complex narrative strategies. Although Dewey's category of ‘‘meaningful design’’ is three times raised by the narrator as a possible standard for resolution, nowhere is it accepted or fully endorsed. Furthermore, while the psychiatric testimony is "placed'' in an important position in "The Corner,’’ it is never accepted as the final answer to the "riddle of criminal behavior''; in fact, it is only one part of the explanatory apparatus of the narration, since the law and legal proceedings have their due, along with the desire for retribution of the people of Holcomb. I would argue that Capote's structure places the reader in a complex intersection of the law, the impulse for compassion, and the knowledge of psychiatry without fully endorsing a single, stable viewpoint naturalized by ‘‘common sense'' or reason.
Chris Anderson explains that the mystery of murder in In Cold Blood is presented through what he calls a ‘‘rhetoric of silence.’’ In effect, Capote's reluctance to impose meaning produces an uncertain ending, one that reproduces our uncertainty when ‘‘the imagination fails to comprehend the quality and degree of suffering the Clutters endured. '' In fact, the moment of cutting Mr. Clutter's throat is portrayed as silent and inexplicable because "in the end things just happened; at the key moment there is a blank.’’ It is this blank—a moment that resists reduction to language—which the whole trial scene and Smith's confessional account do not domesticate or tame by reason. The events at the center of the murders, despite the full psychological backgrounds and the lengthy confessional statements, produce a reverberation of many texts resounding, while the narrator of In Cold Blood declines to single-out any explanatory framework as superior or definitive.
With respect to the psychiatric testimony, despite its strong placement, the reader realizes in a way that Frus seems not to accept that psychiatric knowledge will not clear away the mystery of the case. Such thinking is a kind of trap, for, as Alan Dershowitz has recently pointed out in The Abuse Excuse, what murderer could not claim an abused childhood or environmental pre-conditions for murder? At the closing of In Cold Blood, Capote positions the reader within a competition of explanatory and rational texts without endorsing any of them and without reducing the mysteries of the case to common wisdom.
What Anderson calls "the rhetoric of silence'' implies a narrator who places us in the midst of these explanatory systems, leaving a troubling series of thoughts but never leading to any easy resolution. Are these men guilty? Certainly, on the basis of the evidence at trial, most would say "yes.'' Are they insane? According to the M'Naghten rule they are sane, yet the psychiatric testimony makes childhood abuse and possible brain damage from motor accidents challenge this ruling. Should Smith's painting and studying of philosophy on Death Row be taken into account? Does journal-keeping indicate that Hickock and Smith are redeemable? "Yes,’’ some might say again. Yet Capote leaves readers with an unwieldy series of accidents, as Conniff points out, brought about by real events: the pairing of these two partners, the particular set of American values the Clutters seem to represent, the feelings that Smith experiences at the precise moment of being poised with a knife above Mr. Clutter's throat. What remains is an irreducible blank and a mystery at the center not unlike Kurtz's cry, "the horror, the horror'' in Heart of Darkness. None of this can easily be paraphrased.
Finally, do readers accept the town's need for revenge, supported by a biblical call for justice, or the chief detective's need to feel an appropriate set of emotions to achieve a personal closure? Even if they do, there are the dangers of accepting the potentially exculpatory evidence of psychiatry that might eventually lead to self-less agents lost in a world of post-Freudian determinism. In Cold Blood, despite its authorial omniscience and its apparent sense of closure, requires acceptance of no particular viewpoint without the simultaneous consideration of other powerful and contradictory explanations. At the end of an interview—published in the New York Times Book Review—Capote was asked if he personally had achieved a sense of closure with the case and he replied: ‘‘It's like the echo of E. M. Forster's Malabar Caves, the echo that's meaningless and yet it's there: one keeps hearing it all the time.’’ It is perhaps this memory of the vertigo beyond language that he hoped to reproduce for readers of In Cold Blood.
Source: John Hollowell, ‘‘Capote's In Cold Blood: The Search for Meaningful Design,’’ in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, Autumn 1997, pp. 97-115.
American Prison literature of the past twenty-five years has been preoccupied with a contradiction that is central to the national consciousness. Throughout this period, imprisonment and execution have often risen to the level of obsession; yet such authorized violence has been so normalized that any understanding of it, even in the relatively "safe'' realm of literature, has rarely occurred, except through personal tragedy or accident. It is hard to imagine that even Malcolm X, whose Autobiography H. Bruce Franklin considers the starting point of "Contemporary American prison literature," would ever have considered the institutionalized racism of the justice system if he had remained a petty hustler in Detroit. As Malcolm himself explains, it took a ten-year sentence for a first-time burglary conviction—a sentence lengthened by the involvement of two "well-to-do'' white women—to begin his transformation from an ordinary con into the leading disciple of Elijah Muhammad, and then into a symbol of the "aspirations'' held by those convicts of the late 1960s and early 1970s who wanted, as Eldridge Cleaver puts it, to "inject'' the problems of imprisonment ‘‘into national and state politics.’’ It is equally hard to imagine that Cleaver himself could ever have been transformed from a harmless "lover of marijuana’’ into an "insurrectionary" rapist, and then into a leading Black Panther, if he had not had the bad luck to serve a term in San Quentin on a petty charge of possession. It might very well have taken the chance correspondence with Jack Henry Abbott to allow Norman Mailer, in the course of writing The Executioner's Song, to see through his usual glamorizations of violence, from the 1950s hipster to Mike Tyson, into the reality of the institutionalized man, and beyond that into what he would call, in his introduction to Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast, ‘‘the progressive institutionalization of all society.’’ Again and again, this literature of the prison suggests that the most fortified barriers are not the physical walls and fences between the prison, and the outside world; the most fortified barriers are the psychological walls between the preoccupations of everyday life, even the everyday life of a petty hustler or a famous novelist, and the conscious realization that punishment is the most self-destructive kind of national addiction.
Ironically, these psychological walls are confronted most forcefully, and their implications are seen most clearly, in a work that is not usually considered hardcore enough, or subversive enough, to be a part of any renegade tradition of "prison literature’’: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. In the novel's most characteristic moment, Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent Alvin Dewey—one of Capote's favorite "characters"—finally hears the confession of Perry Smith, one of the two former Kansas State Penitentiary cellmates who murdered Herb Clutter, a prosperous farmer, and his family. For seven months, Dewey has worked continuously, staring at grisly photos and following useless leads, in his quest "to learn exactly what happened in that house that night.'' But when he finally hears the entire story—told by one of the killers, step by step, shotgun blast by shotgun blast—he is strangely disappointed. The truth, he discovers, is even more disturbing than anything he had imagined. Even though he suddenly knows more about the crime than he, or Capote, would ever have hoped, the ‘‘true story’’ somehow ‘‘fails to satisfy his sense of meaningful design.'' The truth, Dewey discovers, is at once more ordinary and more disturbing than anything he has been able to imagine. Contrary to his expectations, Smith and Richard Hickock did not kill the Clutters out of some aberrant sense of revenge; in fact, until the night of the crime, they had never even met their chosen victims. They certainly were not, in any sense, "criminal masterminds.’’ In fact, they were not even very competent. Among other things, they had never even bothered to find out what everyone else in town seemed to know, that Herb Clutter never kept more than a few dollars on hand. Perhaps most disturbing of all, they acted as though they were simply putting in a rather ordinary night's work for which they believed they deserved a good night's pay—though, as it turned out, they would come away with nothing more than about forty dollars and a radio. To Agent Dewey, hearing the full story for the first time, none of this seems possible. He does not want to consider the obvious truth, that "The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been struck by lightning.’’
Like the works more often recognized as "prison literature,’’ In Cold Blood is primarily concerned with moments like these, in which ‘‘meaningful designs'' about crime and punishment—the kind of ‘‘common sense’’ virtually no one sees fit to question—are disrupted by actual events. But no matter how accidental or incongruous the Clutter murders might have seemed, Capote went to Kansas with a ‘‘meaningful design’’ of his own, one far more serious than the literary establishment, the popular imagination, or he himself would later admit. As Gerald Clarke has written in his recent biography, Capote would tell just about anyone who happened to listen that he planned to examine ‘‘the reaction of a small town to a hideous crime.’’ For such a study, he did not believe that the solution of the crime was particularly relevant—a belief that angered Alvin Dewey, and would undoubtedly have angered most local residents, if they had been willing, at that early stage, to take him seriously. Capote was not the least bit concerned with the killers, at first, but only with the immediate victims—a category in which he included both the Clutter family and their neighbors, all those people who suddenly found their lives altered by the mere proximity of the slain bodies.
But Capote's understanding of this "reaction'' was, at first, severely limited: to suppose that the effects of violence do not include the capture and punishment of the criminals is to underestimate the community's need for retribution, its need to reaffirm its "stability," its "normalcy," by authorizing and enacting a violence of its own. Capote also underestimated the extent to which he, too, was subject to the irresistible force of this need. He seems to have never been able to admit—or perhaps even understand—just how much the "appearance'' of Hickock and Smith, in both senses of the word, caused him to alter, and eventually fictionalize, his ‘‘nonfiction novel.’’
When the good citizens of Holcomb and Garden City finally decided to talk to Capote, he found, or at least he imagined he found, the reaction he had anticipated: locked doors and sleepless nights, suspicious neighbors and frightened children, malicious gossip and charitable prayers. Accordingly, the first half of In Cold Blood is filled with this superficial fear, which Capote typically describes as a nostalgia for an "ordinary'' life—as though he is not yet aware, or will not yet allow his narrative voice to sound aware, of the forces that lie behind this "normalcy." After all, as Capote writes, these people had always been ‘‘quite content to exist inside ordinary life.’’ They had been reasonably happy, it seems, "to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings of the 4-H Club.’’ In fact, as the most banal cliché would have it, they had been ‘‘sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors.’’
Once this "unfearful" life was corrupted by the Clutter murders, it could not be restored until after the killers had been found and punished. Finally compelled to lock their doors, many of them with newly purchased locks, the local residents seemed at first to be trying to keep out some kind of invader from "outside'' the community, some kind of creature as alien as it was frightening. They seemed to be playing the kind of game that Agent Dewey, searching one more time through the photographs of the crime scene in the hope that ‘‘some meaningful detail would declare itself,’’ described as ‘‘find the hidden animals.’’ As George Creeger has noted, Dewey's search for "animals" in the "puzzle'' is part of an elaborate system of imagery that Capote uses "to suggest a complex relationship between the criminal and the community.’’ The ‘‘grim logic’’ by which Hickock and Smith are categorized as "animals" allows the community to ‘‘deprive the killers of their humanity," "exile them’’ and ‘‘return to the feeling it cherishes so much—that of security.’’ But Capote also suggests that Dewey's search through the "puzzle'' is also a little naive, almost even pathetic: it is a child's game, in relation to the events that have preceded it, and the events that will follow. "Meaning" will never declare itself. Rather, "meaning'' will have to be superimposed, over and over, by all the residents of Garden City, and eventually by Capote himself, as one delusion after another is undermined by ordinary, sordid events.
Because a common "normalcy" ultimately depends upon the complete exclusion of ‘‘outsiders,’’ the exorcism of these mysterious "animals" is just as important as their discovery, and capture. In this sense, most of Holcomb's citizens are very much like Perry Smith's sister, who believes that men like Perry and his father—the Irish rodeo cowboy turned wilderness man, John "Tex'' Smith— "should" always live "alone," perhaps in the "Alaskan wilderness,'' far away from her own kind of "timid life.'' Like all the rest of the "normals,’’ as Perry calls them—‘‘respectable people, safe and smug people’’—she needs to convince herself that Perry's life is ‘‘an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another.’’ In other words, she needs to believe that Perry's life is completely different from her own, and completely different from the lives of those other "respectable'' people with whom she tries to surround herself. Only Perry and his kind, beasts from some imagined "wilderness,’’ could so disrupt and endanger a community in which lives are assumed to have direction—a world of progress that is always becoming, as Herb Clutter confidently remarked in an interview with C. B. Palmer not long before his death, ‘‘increasingly organized.’’ Like the residents of Holcomb, Perry's sister must convince herself that it is only people like Perry, "isolated" and "animal," who are driven by a lonely search for distant "mirages.''
As the local "professional," Agent Dewey assumes the responsibility of superimposing on the evidence an official interpretation that can somehow support these delusions. Accordingly, in his efforts to explain the crime, he constructs two "concepts." Dewey realizes that both have glaring limitations, and he has difficulty deciding between them; nonetheless, these "concepts," and Dewey's inclinations in trying to decide, allow Capote to provide a commentary on the kind of respectability to which Perry's sister, like so many others, has always aspired. According to the first possible explanation, the ‘‘single killer concept,’’ the killer would have been "a friend of the family, or, at any rate, a man with more than casual knowledge of the house and its inhabitants.'' This person would have known the structure of the house, the placing of the telephones, the dog's fear of guns and, of course, ‘‘that the doors were seldom locked.’’ Dewey is reluctant to accept this explanation, because it would lead him to assume elaborate and careful planning on the part of this "single killer.'' The killer would have had to possess the kind of rationality that, Dewey would rather believe, distinguishes people like those of his community from animals and madmen. The second "concept" follows the first ‘‘in many essentials,’’ but suggests that the killer had an "accomplice, who helped subdue the family, tape, and time them.''
Dewey is even more reluctant to accept this second explanation—though of course it turns out to be closer to the truth. He finds it "difficult to understand 'how two individuals could reach the same degree of rage, the kind of psychopathic rage it took to commit such a crime.’'’ ‘‘Psychopathic rage’’ is the one idea he could not have derived from the "facts'' in which he claims to place so much faith. For that matter, this idea even allows him to deny an impressive body of evidence— the mattress box placed beneath Herb Clutter's body, the pillow beneath his son's head, the blankets tucked around the two women—all the traces of "considerate impulses ... a certain twisted tenderness" on the part of at least one killer. Nonetheless, Dewey clings to this second"concept'' as long as he can, because in the common scheme of things, which he wants so badly to reaffirm, the very definition of the "psychopathic" would be the murder of people like the Clutters, the embodiments of local respectability, the "least likely people in the world'' to be killed.
Dewey's two "concepts" are revealing not only because of the extent to which they exclude the reality of the crime, but also because of the extent to which they exclude each other: he does not want to admit the possibility of either a calculated, multiple murder or the possibility of mutual psychopathology. Most of all, he does not want to admit the possibility of both, that two killers, together, could have performed such a crime, deliberately and without "abnormal" rage—as, in fact, they did. As a professional defender of the community—and as a defender of the very idea of a "community" by which rational "normalcy" is defined—he must always view "psychopathology" as individual. He must always believe that rational deliberation necessarily excludes excessive violence, except as they might come together within a narrowly defined category of individual psychopathology. At the same time, as a custodian of the law, he must neatly divide all offenders ‘‘into two groups, the 'sane' and the 'insane.'’’ Most basically, like Perry Smith's sister, and like most everyone else in Holcomb, Dewey wants desperately to believe that the Clutter murders were the act of someone completely isolated, mentally and socially.
Dewey's theories might have remained impressive, like Capote's original plan for his book, and almost convincing, if it were not for the intervention of certain "accidents.'' By a stroke of luck far more striking than Capote's "discovery'' of the story, the crime is " solved.'' In the Kansas State Penitentiary, Floyd Wells, a former cellmate of Richard Hickock, happens to hear a radio account of the murder. Wanting, more than anything else, to improve his own chances of parole, Wells decides to inform the prison officials. In the meantime, by returning to their favorite motels and continuing to pass bad checks, Smith and Hickock have just about guaranteed their own arrest outside a Las Vegas post office. Capote's narrative arrangement—more or less alternating scenes involving the Clutters and their community with scenes involving Smith and Hickock—provides the kind of juxtapositions that make the murderers' simple incompetence all the more glaring, in contrast to the elaborate suspicions and theories fostered by the "normal'' community.
By virtue of such unimpressive events, Capote found himself in a situation that would turn out to be far more resistant to his investigations and his art than the reticence of Kansas farmers. Perhaps it was only such events, combined with the trial and execution that would follow—in which "good" would stubbornly refuse to triumph over "evil," in which ‘‘sanity'' would strangely refuse to explain and cure "insanity"—that could ever have forced him to question his initial design. Perhaps it was only such events that could have allowed him to travel—by such an unexpected route and, in the end, deeper than he had ever anticipated—into the center of the American psyche. In any case, when word got around that the killers were being brought back for trial, Capote made sure that he was at the center of the crowd forming outside the Finney County Court House to await their arrival. There, journalists anticipated ‘‘shouted abuse.’’ Just about everyone, anxious for the display of the ‘‘hidden animals,’’ anticipated some kind of worthwhile spectacle. But the moment the killers appeared, this design, too, was shattered. At the sight of Smith and Hickock, everyone simply fell silent, "as though amazed to find them humanly shaped.’’
This amazement at the sight of the killers is a clue to the "effect of fear'' that is, of all the effects the novel tries to document, the most resistant to conscious awareness. The capture of Smith and Hickock is not enough, in itself, to make the residents of Holcomb feel completely secure. And the public display of the two killers—"white-faced and blinking blindly'' as they "glistened in the glare of flashbulbs and floodlights’’—only serves to undermine whatever small degree of security has been restored. In fact, Capote suggests, the combination of these two events only exposes a deeper hostility—a hostility within the community for which the two murderers cannot be completely responsible. The demonization of these "Persons Unknown'' turns out to have been, all along, a defense against the very nightmare that does come true the moment they are put on show in the courthouse square: the killers, as it turns out, are not so reassuringly "alien.'' With the arrest of Smith and Hickock, the residents of Holcomb have been spared what might have seemed, at first, to be a worse "solution" of the crime, the possibility that the killers might be found ‘‘among themselves.’’ So, now, one might expect them to be relieved that they no longer have ‘‘to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other,’’ at least not in exactly the same way.
But even though it has turned out that Smith and Hickock are not "locals,'' for some reason their appearance can not extinguish "the fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.’’ Even when Hickock's detailed confession is announced—as though any further evidence is needed—the people of Holcomb still want to believe that someone else, someone more familiar, must have been involved: ‘‘the majority of Holcomb's population, having lived for seven weeks amid unwholesome rumors, general mistrust, and suspicion, appeared to feel disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves.’’ They cannot escape the kind of internal distrust that was first expressed by Myrtle Clare, postmistress and local Jeremiah, immediately after the murders. As Mrs. Clare told her mother, it could have been anyone: ‘‘All the neighbors are rattlesnakes. Varmints looking for a chance to slam the door in your face. It's the same the world over.’’ Ironically, it is only after the killers have been caught and returned to Kansas that Mrs. Clare's vast denunciation begins to acquire a degree of general acceptance. No matter how vigorously the citizens have taken to buying new locks and to constructing psychological theories, they are still compelled to confront a beast that is within. Just as "Institutional dourness and cheerful domesticity coexist on the fourth floor of the Finney County Courthouse,’’ where Smith and Hickock wait for their trial, institutionalized fear and domestic ritual remain inseparable in the minds of all the people who wait to see them tried. The arrest and display of the killers is not enough, at least not so long as they refuse to appear obviously inhuman. The community still cannot return to "normal," not until the fear and the ritual are completely fused in another act of violence.
That is why the good citizens of Finney County finally seem to be seeking—at once and, ultimately, in defiance of all evidence—a criminal without and a criminal within, a guilty alien and a guilty neighbor. Though Capote is never quite willing to pursue all of its implications, he does suggest that such a paradox is inevitably involved in the dynamics of ritual sacrifice. As René Girard explains, in Violence and the Sacred, the victim "must bear a sharp resemblance to the human categories excluded from the ranks of the sacrificable, while still maintaining a degree of difference that forbids all possible confusion.’’ To mitigate internal distrust—or even better, to pretend that it has never existed—the community must seize upon a "sacrificable" victim, or, in the case of In Cold Blood, victims. Otherwise, the community fears, further violence might "be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect.’’ Accordingly, everyone in town has demonized Hickock and Smith, turned them into "animals," in order to insist, as Girard puts it, on a ‘‘degree of difference that avoids all confusion’’; and, more by chance than anything else, it has discovered the killers to be all too human—more or less ordinary looking young men, without elaborate criminal records. The killers turn out to be too a little close to "the human categories excluded from the ranks of the sacrificable.’’
Capote's depiction of the murder trial is, in effect, an attempt to demonstrate that this contradiction can only be overcome—and Hickock and Smith properly executed—if their actual mental states are treated as irrelevant. No legal consideration can be given to the car collision that left Dick Hickock, in his father's words, no longer ‘‘the same boy," nor to the first seventeen months he did in the state prison at Lansing for taking a hunting knife from a neighbor's house. As Hickock's father puts it, this first imprisonment seems, more than anything else, to have been the young man's "ruination'': "When he came out of Lansing, he was a total stranger to me.’’ Nor can any legal consideration be given to Smith's ‘‘personality structure,’’ described by one psychiatrist as ‘‘very nearly that of a paranoid schizophrenic reaction.’’ Certainly, it is necessary to exclude from the trial Smith's recurrent dream of an avenging yellow parrot, a "towering'' figure that first visited him when he was a child in a California orphanage run by nuns, who beat and humiliated him for wetting the bed; the "warriorangel" that came to his rescue and "blinded the nuns with its beak, fed upon their eyes, slaughtered them as they "pleaded for mercy," then so gently lifted him, enfolded him, winged him away to paradise—a magic friend that reappeared violently throughout his ‘‘several confinements in institutions and children's detention centers.’’
In this way, Capote suggests, the community reassures itself that justice is being carried out, while establishing the adequacy of the sacrificable victims. To this end, the prosecution of Smith and Hickock is aided by the M'Naghten rule, ‘‘the ancient British importation which contends that if the accused knew the nature of his act, and knew it was wrong, then he is mentally competent and responsible for his actions." "Furthermore," as special assistant prosecuting attorney Logan Green reminds the Judge, there is "nothing in the Kansas statutes indicating that the physicians chosen to determine a defendant's mental condition must be of any particular qualification.’’ They can be ‘‘just plain doctors. Medical doctors in general practice. That's all the law requires.’’ Like the two ‘‘concepts" superimposed on the case by Agent Dewey before the killers were captured, the Kansas statutes serve the community's purpose, in this case by reducing psychiatric testimony, literally, to a "yes'' or "no'' answer, preferably given by an "expert'' who would not even be disposed, in any case, to much further elaboration. Despite the public and the media's earlier fascination with the capture and confessions of the killers, no attempt is made, once they are caught, to understand the crime in any way. Rather, as the execution of Hickock and Smith draws closer, the most troubling questions are systematically preempted. Neither the community nor the law that defends it—and, in the end, not even Capote himself, the aspiring expert on ‘‘multiple murderers’’—really wants to risk any challenge to the accepted distinctions between the "sacrificable victims,’’ Hickock and Smith, and all those local residents who must be "excluded from the ranks of the sacrificable.’’ As one of the forensic psychiatrists asked to consult on the evaluations of the two killers admits, in the kind of testimony excluded from the trial, "murderers who seem rational, coherent, and controlled, and yet whose homicidal acts have a bizarre, apparently senseless quality, pose a difficult problem.’’
Capote is admirably determined to confront this kind of difficult problem, mostly by including in the novel the kind of testimony that is excluded with such vigilance from the courtroom. Throughout, he dwells on the dual nature of the sacrificial victim. Early on, he describes Hickock's face, transformed by a car collision into a jumble of "mismatched parts,’’ part ‘‘American style 'goodkid,'’’ part thug. Smith's body is similarly "mismatched,'' the result of a motorcycle accident that left his weightlifter's upperbody balanced tenuously on two "dwarfish" legs, which ‘‘still pained him so severely that he had become an aspirin addict.’’ Hickcock repeatedly swears, ‘‘I'm a normal’’ and, when Perry, reflecting on the murders, suggests that there just might be ‘‘something wrong’’ with them after all, Hickock denies it with all the self-righteousness of a teetotaling old aunt. Yet Hickock runs over dogs on the highway and "promises'' Smith, when planning the robbery, that there will be "lots of hair on them those walls.’’ Hickock is the one with the ‘‘sexual interest in female children’’ who wants to stop, in the middle of the burglary, to rape Nancy Clutter. For his part, Smith rather typically, if pathetically, fantasizes about "theatrical" fame, envisioning himself as Perry O'Parsons,"The One Man Symphony,’’ with a white top hat and a white tuxedo, with songs and instruments and tap dance steps attuned to every nuance of popular taste. Yet he also continues to dream of the yellow parrot, his projection of isolated vengeance—and his two fantasies eventually flow together in front of an audience of "phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted.’’
Most importantly, Capote includes the detailed psychological profiles that the defense attorney's expert witnesses would have provided, if the law had not prevented them from doing so. Most tellingly, so far as the community is concerned, Capote even includes passages from an article, "Murder Without Apparent Motive—A Study in Personality Disorganization,’’ written by Joseph Satten in collaboration with three of his colleagues. After criticizing the ordinary legal distinctions between the "sane'' and the "insane," this article describes a ‘‘specific syndrome’’ that would apply, Satten thinks, to Smith and Hickock. Not surprisingly, by this point in the novel, this "syndrome" seems to apply almost equally to the local community. The psychologists write of a "lapse in ego control which makes possible the open expression of primitive violence," and an "unconscious traumatic configuration’’ that ‘‘unwittingly sets into motion...homicidal potential.’’ The murder of the ultra-respectable Clutters, followed by the capture of two young men who fit so well into the role of sacrificial victim, was just such a "configuration"—just such a psychological accident.
As Capote should have known, judging by his attention to such accidents throughout the book, the implications of this "testimony" are much more disturbing than either alien invaders or distrustful neighbors. Capote is not particularly determined to demonstrate that, in this particular case, justice has been denied in the courtroom. He never tries to prove that the unfortunate backgrounds of Smith and Hickock can really be used to explain why they became murderers, or even to give guidance on what sort of punishment would be appropriate for them. Instead, by including such a wide range of excluded, more or less psychiatric "testimony," he portrays the trial as little more than an official sanction to ensure that the execution will take place. In doing so, Capote demonstrates that violence is not just a foreign threat, something from "outside normal life.'' Sacrificial violence is the culmination of the sense of normalcy that holds the town together.
But in the end, no one, not even Capote, really wants to face this reality. At the execution of Smith and Hickock, Agent Dewey—who has become, in the course of the novel, increasingly difficult to separate from Capote's conscience—is once again mysteriously disappointed. He ‘‘had anticipated a setting of suitable dignity.’’ More importantly, he ‘‘had imagined that with the deaths of Smith and Hickock, he would experience a sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed.’’ By this point in the novel, it is no longer surprising that this imagined design is shattered by real events.
It is surprising, however, that Capote himself, after all his efforts to confront the psychological barriers between the world of the murderers and the world of victims, is compelled to falsify the ending of his ‘‘nonfiction novel’’ by attaching a completely fictional final scene. At the end, Dewey and Susan Kidwell, the best friend of the Clutter's murdered daughter, meet on a sunny May afternoon at the cemetery where the Clutter family is buried. Dewey recalls this meeting as he stands in the prison warehouse, having been "invited" as one of the ‘‘twenty-odd witnesses’’ to ‘‘the ceremony’’ of Smith and Hickock's hanging. When Dewey opens his eyes to see Smith's ‘‘childish feet, tilted, dangling’’—at the moment, that is, when he realizes just how wrought with fiction his hope for "a design justly completed’’ really is—his thoughts jump back to a pristine moment in the past, the imagined, ‘‘casual encounter’’ in Garden City's ‘‘formal cemetery". There, in that "good refuge from a hot day,'' where "fields blaze with the gold-green fire of half-grown wheat,’’ Dewey thinks proudly of his new home and his two sons, now ‘‘deep-voiced’’ and "as tall as their father.'' Susan Kidwell, only a child at the trial, is now ‘‘a willowy girl with white-gloved hands, smooth cap of dark-honeyed hair, and long, elegant legs.’’ Sexual maturity, it seems, makes up for a lot. "Normalcy" is made to reassert itself, as though it were a force of nature. It is in this setting that the book closes. Transported from the prison warehouse by an act of "novelistic'' magic, Dewey strolls through that warm field, ‘‘starting home...toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.’’ Time, at least this suddenly fictional time, has finally brought all things to fullness, and has brought Dewey, like Capote, to some comforting sense of closure. All is pretty much well. The murders—and, more importantly, all the subsequent "whispers'' of fear, suspicion, and vengeance—have been displaced into a distant past. Smith's dangling feet have disappeared.
So, in one act of relatively ‘‘pure fiction,’’ Capote provides the kind of satisfaction that, he would always argue, an execution should not provide in reality. Even Capote, the eternal "outsider'' who spent nearly six years interviewing and corresponding with Smith and Hickock, is finally controlled by the irresistible dynamics of community bonding. He, too, needs to impose the apparent meaning of a completed "design," needs to construct a sort of myth, to normalize and dissipate his awareness of the events surrounding the execution, perhaps even to ease his conscience for not having tried to stop it. Like the critics who praised him so early in his career, and like the citizens of Holcomb who contributed so much to his greatest work, Capote does not really want to consider the disturbing truth that this center of the American psyche, this vision of justice as a vengeful God who must be propitiated so that the "natural" and social order can be restored, is only reached by luck—or, to put it in his own terms, by "a psychological accident.’’ And he does not want to admit that, even then, any consideration of this center is always resisted, if not entirely avoided, by our desire to distance ourselves from the need for violence that holds together our communities.
Source: Brian Conniff, '''Psychological Accidents': In Cold Blood and Ritual Sacrifice,’’ in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Autumn 1993, pp. 77-93.