Reading In Cold Blood (1965) for the second time, after first reading it more than fifty years ago, was an exploration in memory. What did I recognize of the book as I originally read it? What kind of book was it for me then, and what kind of book does it seem now?
In 1965 the book was a crime story, and its interest for me lay in the murders, who committed them, how they were committed, the hunt for the suspects, the trial, and the executions. Now it seems much more. What I discovered on the second reading was the dysfunctionality of the Clutter family. On the surface, they seem a paragon of Americana perfection. Successful, wealthy, vital. The 16-year-old daughter Nancy is president of her high school class, an academic achiever, a friend to everyone. Her brother seems headed towards being an engineer, though his father hopes he will take over the farm. The father is a paragon of civic virtues—pious, respected, a leader. But cracks in the family reputation are evident. The mother suffers from an emotional disorder that keeps her either hospitalized or cowering in her bedroom. She and her husband sleep apart. The man himself rules the house with a subtly iron fist. The son is quiet and reticent. Nancy’s future is so socially preordained that the idea of choosing to do anything other than marry and become a housewife and mother doesn’t even occur to her, or to anyone else. The Clutters are both admired and resented in the town. The town itself, Holcomb, Kansas, is an enclave (like most of the state) of conservative Republican Protestantism. As soon as news of the Clutter murders comes out, carping, quibbling, suspicions spread.
Capote makes the Clutters, and their town of Holcomb, a kind of American ideal by describing them more as types than as distinctive places. The town is like every other small Midwestern town. Sometimes his characterizations seem on the verge of becoming sneers, but rarely does he cross the line. One suspects the sneer mainly because we know that the celebrity Capote was noted for sneers and sarcasms. Here his observations are more earnest and deadpan. He has an eye for precise detail, for the visual nuances, that turn Holcomb into an American microcosm. He is great at replicating human character through speech, and at rendering minor characters as vividly as he does the principals. Yet much of the speech, the dialogue, he presents he could not have heard firsthand—some of it is based on interviews and courtroom testimony. Some of it may have been speech he invented, imaginatively recreating the realities he was not present to witness for himself. Harper Lee assisted him in research for the book. She gave him (according to some accounts) an entrée into the town and was probably a more social person whom the townspeople felt comfortable with, whom they were willing to talk to. The book gives little evidence of her presence or contribution.