Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Proving that I do still read books occasionally, instead of just lounging on the couch watching MST3K DVDs, I finished Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' last night. It's more or less a grand literary episode of CSI, except that it's all true.

Late one night in 1959, two men entered the home of a prosperous, well-liked Kansas farm family and systematically murdered everyone inside. The massacre was horrifying not just for its bloodiness, but also for its apparent lack of motive. Nothing in particular was stolen, ruling out burglary, and the family was popular in their small community, ruling out revenge or anger. Nobody could tell why the murders had occured, and that, more than anything, shattered their equanimity.

As investigations proceeded, the truth was slowly uncovered. Burglary had indeed been a motive. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, aimless delinquents recently released from prison, had entered the house believing it to contain a well-stuffed safe... which it didn't. But even if there had been a safe, it was always the killers' intention to "leave no witnesses". They'd made preparations to kill as many as twelve people, if there'd happened to be guests in the house. There was even the sense that, had the purported safe been in an empty house, the two men might have been slightly less keen about the whole crime. They wanted to "splatter the walls with hair", to use their own grotesque metaphor.

The dichotomy between the close-knit, stolid, hardworking Clutters and their amoral, self-deluding, dysfunctional killers could scarcely be more pronounced. Civilization versus savagery. Creation versus consumption. Generosity versus self service. Even good versus bad. The victims took what they had and made it into larger, greater things that benefited both themselves and the people around them. The killers took what they had and squandered it, deciding that they could take more from others when they ran out.

Capote always had a thing for low-life characters, like the pair of thinly-veneered prostitutes in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', and here he'd found a couple of real examples. As Milton discovered in Paradise Lost, fiends are more interesting than paragons. I suppose this is a survival instinct: you can safely ignore a saint, but if you ignore a sinner he's likely to shiv you the moment you turn your back. Capote doesn't suggest that Smith and Hickock are not vile through and through, but he does understand them, possibly more than the understands the simple virtue of their victims. Opening up the killers' minds to the reader, he implies that there but for a sense of self-disipline and an ounce of human empathy go the rest of us. At our lowest moments we might realise that we are closer to the killers than the Clutters.


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