This is a book by Truman Capote based on true events that occurred between 1959 and 1965. It is about the senseless murders of 4 members of the Clutter family in the village of Holcomb, an almost unknown area in western Kansas back then. The book is not a who-done-it. Nor is it about whether or not the murderers will get away with the crime. Rather, it takes us through the entire journey — with the murderers from the start of the crime through to their escape and their subsequent capture and time in jail until they are hung; with the detective incharge of the case and his thoughts and views about the crime and the criminals; the Clutter family and of course, the comments and views of the people of Holcomb. Capote has captured these through his interviews and observations and presented it in the form of a novel.
The book starts off a tad slowly and it can be a bit boring for some readers trying to get through the basics about the village, the setting and the Clutter family as well as the introduction to the murderers. However, once the killings occur, the book definitely picks up pace. The murders are described in all their gory details — the slain bodies of Mr Clutter, Mrs Clutter and two of their children, Nancy (aged 16) and Kenyon (aged 15), by a couple of convicts out on parole: Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock. All for a measly 40-50 dollars and a couple of household articles.
The people of Holcomb are obviously shocked at the brutality. They go from being people who were quite to happy to keep their doors unlocked, to changing locks and being suspicious of one another. Capote follows Detective Dewey and the rest of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in their journey to finding the answer. In catching the culprits responsible for this cold blooded killing. Once Perry and Dick are caught, we are given a lot more insight into their pasts and their lives. To the point where there is some sympathy evoked for the murderers. In fact, it appears that the even those convicting the murderers feel sorry for Perry.
Both Perry and Dick have had different childhoods. Perry was neglected by his parents, had an alcoholic mother, was in an orphanage for a while where he was abused physically and emotionally — all resulting in him not trusting the world and losing out on a childhood and education. He yearns to be someone who he is not. He yearns to learn even in adulthood. Even as a thief and a murderer. He considers other criminals as being lower and less intelligent than him.
Dick on the other hand, had a reasonable childhood. Loving parents and siblings. Good at studies and sport. The only thing he lacked was money. The family were poor and couldn’t afford to send Dick to go on to college resulting in him taking on a job he didn’t want, meeting with an accident, getting married a couple of times, having kids with each wife and engaging in risky behaviour. And finally meeting Perry in jail.
I thought the book presented several questions.
- How important is education and can it make a difference in terms of the path you take? Maybe not, given that another inmate at the jail introduced to us towards the very is an educated young man from a well-to-do family.
- Are cold-blooded murderers born evil or is it a result of their circumstances? The nature versus nurture debate. Unsure. After all, whilst Perry was neglected and abused and had severe attachment problems and possible core beliefs/schema of defectiveness, there are other individuals out there who undergo exactly what Perry went through and some probably worse and not all of them end up becoming cold-blooded killers.
- Did Perry and Dick actually get a fair trial? In fact, can anyone in their situation ever be given a fair trial?
- Perry’s sexuality is questionable. Remember, the book is set in a time where homosexuality was considered a disorder. Whilst nothing is explicitly said about his sexual preferences, one cannot help but wonder whether he was struggling with issues around his sexuality and therefore to prove himself to be a “masculine man” to Dick, engaged in a murder he otherwise may not have.
- Could the head injury obtained by Dick in the accident have in fact altered his behaviour? There were no brain imaging scans conducted…so we will never know.
I must say, the book appealed to the psychologist in me. Not because I work with criminals. But all the childhood aspects definitely did. More so with Perry, I found myself questioning his core beliefs and how they would have developed. His core beliefs are likely to have developed based on his childhood experiences. And it is with these core beliefs, that he in turn viewed himself and the world around. As being an unjust place. A place where no one cared about him. And why should they when he was worthless in his own eyes? Could something have changed if there had been at least one caregiver that had shown him what it was like to love someone? If there was one caregiver that was consistent in their behaviour and feelings towards him? Could none of this have occurred?
I guess we will never know.
I would highly recommend this book if you like true crime. And if you are willing to be a bit patient initially.
Until next time,
***This has been cross-posted at Bond with Books***