Book groups are the best because not only do you get to pick books that have been on your To Be Read list since forever, but you also get to read books that you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on your own. In Cold Blood is the latter. It’s one of those books that I’ve probably thought “Huh. I should read that some day.” Happily, a book group member had access to a ton of copies, so here we are.
I had very little background knowledge of this story. I know the book itself is considered a great work and is often found on Books You Must Read list. It also helped create a genre of fictionalized journalism where Capote took nonfiction and added in the details. We don’t know what really happened, but Capote interviewed people and filled in the blanks with his own details. This, of course, bothers some people who think it creates fiction. Once you muddy the waters, it’s no longer a truthful account.
In November 1959 in a town in Kansas, four members of the Cutter family were murdered. This was a place where things like this don’t happen. There was no motive, no reason for the family to have been targeted and it looked like whoever had done it was going to get away with it.
Dick Hickock and Perry Smith didn’t choose the Cutter family randomly, but they should have gotten away with the murders. They were careful and left only one clue behind – a bloody boot print. The two planned to disappear from the States and live a rich life where they’d never have to work again. Hickock had learned about the Cutter family from a fellow prisoner who had worked for Mr. Cutter. He told Hickock that Mr. Cutter kept a safe filled with money and the house was isolated. Hickock held on to this information for years, and when he hooked up with Smith he decided it was time to create a plan. From the beginning, they both knew they were going to murder anyone involved. They kept repeating that they would leave no witnesses.
The problem was that Mr. Cutter kept no cash in the house. He rarely kept cash on his person, making a point of writing checks for everything so he’d have a record of what he had spent. When Hickock and Smith arrived, they tied up Mrs. Cutter and Kenyon and Nancy, the two youngest Cutter children. Mr. Cutter tried to tell them that there was no money and convince them to leave. Frustrated, the men took a few things from the house and shot and killed all four family members.
The police were stuck. No one could figure out a motive. The entire family was well respected. There were only a few incidents where someone came against Mr. Cutter, and these men were quickly dismissed as potential suspects. Mrs. Cutter had been mentally unstable for years, so there was some talk in the community that she finally snapped and killed everyone, but once details came out about how she was tied up, people let this trail off. The community quickly turned on each other, and this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me. Rumors were everywhere and people found themselves suddenly suspicious of people they had known their entire lives. If the Cutters could be murdered, then anyone could be. Locks were changed on doors and people shut themselves off from people they didn’t know well. Everyone was desperate for a reason so that they could convince themselves that it couldn’t happen to them, and if that meant quietly supposing that maybe a certain person should possibly be watched, then so be it. It’s human nature to want a reason and to feel safe.
Hickock and Smith were not criminal masterminds. The two had a strange relationship. Smith at times was besotted with Hickock and his ability to make plans and take charge. Hickock liked Smith’s nonchalant attitude about crime. He thought Smith would be a great accomplice because he had gotten away with murder before and liked the idea of cashing in and starting a new life. The problem was that Hickock was never content in the moment and was constantly looking for the next thing. He also spent money faster than he could take it in and Smith watched him quickly lose what little they had. Smith began to suspect that Hickock wasn’t interested in spending his life with Smith as a treasure hunter and Hickock began to resent that he had chained his life to Smith by committing the crime together.
Hickock’s boredom and greed was their downfall. He convinced Smith that they needed more money and it would be simple for them to return to Hickock’s hometown where he could pass a series of bad checks. They’d leave with piles of money and be on to the next thing, and this would be a permanent place. Smith disagreed, but went along with it.
By this time, Hickock and Smith were suspects in the murders. The prisoner who had told Hickock about the Cutter family was able to pass the information on to the warden. He remembered Hickock asking lots of questions about the family and the house and he realized that he must have been the one that killed them.
When Hickock and Smith were in Mexico, Smith realized he was going to have to get rid of some of his things. He was a collector and hoarded things that were important to him. He chose a few things he couldn’t part with and sent them to Las Vegas to be held at the post office until he could pick them up. He figured at some point they’d be able to slip over the border, once they were set up for good in Mexico. This was before Hickock decided to go home to make money from his bad checks. The detectives on the case were quickly notified that the men were back in the area, almost on the other end of the state from the Cutter’s town. Hickock passed all the checks in his own name and would have been easy to pick up, except they somehow left town before the police in the area realized it. Once again, they could have gotten away with the entire thing.
When they got to Las Vegas, they didn’t change cars. The local police quickly noticed the car and followed them to the post office. The picked up the two men as Smith was walking out with his box of belongings that he had sent from Mexico. In the box were the boots he wore to the Cutters – the ones that left the bloody boot print.
It was almost like they were trying to get caught.
They were tried and convicted in the Cutter’s town. There was talk of moving the trial, but the lawyers for both men decided they had a good chance of avoiding the death penalty if they kept it there. There were a lot of churches in town and informal polls showed that many were against the death penalty. The case had gotten a lot of media attention, so moving the trial would have been difficult.
Both men were sentenced to death by hanging.
Capote spent six years working on this book. Once the men were convicted, he realized the only way his book could end was when they died. He started his research about two weeks after the murders were committed. He had been friends with Harper Lee since they were kids, and she came with him. She was able to convince the women in town to persuade their husbands to talk to Capote.
When the men were in jail, Capote spent a great deal of time with them. He wanted to know who they were and how their life led to this moment. Smith comes across more sympathetically in the book and a few people in my book group thought that he was gay and he and Capote had some sort of relationship. Smith had been violently sexually abused as a boy and was disgusted by any type of deviant sexual activity. Hickock planned on raping the Cutter daughter, but Smith stopped him. I thought he was completely nonsexual, but others do think the two men had a relationship.
Hickock, on the other hand, comes across as cold and uncaring. He wants what he wants and he will take it. However, he had a good childhood and a loving family. His father tried to convince the jurors that the only reason he was in trouble was because of a bad car accident. He said his son was a decent boy until something happened to his brain. The prosecution pointed out that Hickock started committing crimes before his accident and the jury dismissed the car accident.
There were several years of stays and they spent five years on death row. Capote spent massive amounts of time with the men. Between their stories and the research done in the Cutter’s town, he amassed some 8,000 pages of notes. This was no longer just an article to him and the two men had become people, not just names in a newspaper.
The genre of nonfiction novel is tricky. There were several times when I forgot I was reading about something that actually happened because Capote’s writing is so strong. He described the farm and Mr. Cutter’s last day in vivid detail and it read like a novel. I wanted to know more about the family, and then I’d realize that it’s possible he tried to interview the surviving members and they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I had to keep reminding myself that he wasn’t making things up and if someone didn’t want to talk to him, he couldn’t put them in the book.
He of course drew criticism because of this. When people read the book, they denied certain parts. Follow up visits from other writers led to accusations that Capote should not have published the book as a true account. Still, it remains a celebrated book in the true crime genre.
I saw the movie Capote many years ago and I don’t remember much about it. I do remember talking to my stepmom about it and saying that I was really uncomfortable with how Capote “befriended” the men in order to get their stories to write his book. I understood why he had to do it, but it made me feel icky. Capote knew he had the subject to write something amazing, and of course he was going to do what he had to in order to get their stories. At the same time, the way he did it made me almost feel bad for these guys. I knew they had murdered the Clutter family, but it felt like Capote was then taking advantage of them for his own gain. I want to watch the movie again now that I’ve read the book to see how my opinion has changed, or if it has changed.
Capote was an incredibly gifted writer and this book is a great mix of beautiful descriptions and simple and cold fact. Parts read like interviews and parts read like a novel. It was not a quick read, but I enjoyed it.