The genre of crime fiction may be used to convey wider philosophical message to the author’s audience. In particular, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote presents a compelling narrative of the human nature’s qualities that are usually hidden but may manifest themselves in sinister ways. The contrast between the ‘respectable’ life and the criminal underworld underpinning the novel points to an increasing blurring of lines between these two worlds, as well as to the fatal consequences it may lead to.
Capote examines a case of the Clutters’ murder that occurred in November 1959 in Holcomb, a prosperous but parochial hamlet in western Kansas. The novel’s plot revolves around two sets of characters: the victims and the murderers. In addition, supporting characters’ points of view are included, especially in the latter part of the novel.
The Clutters are described as a well-off and amicable farmers’ family, respected by their neighbors and the local society. However, their life is fraught with hidden problems and contradictions. Bonnie, Mr. Clutter’s wife, is suffering from permanent nervous breakdowns and despondency, while Nancy, a 16 year old darling of the whole town, struggles with her feelings towards Bobby Rupp, a local basketball star (Capote 14). Nevertheless, the picture drawn by Capote is that of a prosperous and peaceful family readying itself for a jubilant Thanksgiving celebration.
The villains of the story, Dick and Perry, are former Kansas prison inmates who dream of easy money to leave the U.S. and start a life of slothful bliss in Mexico. They have spent most of their lives in jail, and this makes them cold-blooded (hence the title of the novel) and egoistic. It is evident that they are ready to go to great lengths to reach their goal.
Nevertheless, the characters of Perry and Dick are more complex than one may fancy. While the Clutters embody the Eisenhower-era middle class affluence, Dick and Perry are incarnations of the social underworld that may be ignored but never domesticated. It is not as if they were always moral cripples; their constant rejection by the society drives Dick and Perry to exasperation. The murder of the Clutters is deeply symbolic; while the farmer family is an example of the 1950s world of respectability and conservative social conventions, Perry and Dick are a foreshadowing of the rebellious and uncertain 1960s (Lewis 17).
The novel does not feature an exact description of the murder, enabling the reader to look upon it from the point of view of supporting characters suspected of the crime. The reader sees Perry consumed by deep sleep in one of the hotel rooms in Olanthe, Kansas. His boots, soaked in a washbasin, color the water in “vaguely pink-tinted” hue, which symbolizes the murder he has just been involved in (Capote 90).
At the same time, the murderers are prone to fear and insecurity when confronted with their accusers. Under interrogation, Dick shows signs of being visibly shaken by the accusations presented by Harold Nye, a detective who arrested him and his accomplice. Nye “later wrote in a formal report of the interview, “Suspect underwent an intense visible reaction. He turned gray. His eyes twitched” (Capote 275). Dick tries to act as a ‘tough guy’ but finally breaks; when presented with photographs from the murder scene, he blames Perry for planning and committing the murder.
On the other hand, Perry is depicted as stubborn in his denial and unaware of the full extent of his companion’s treachery. When presented with the murder accusations, he “sat quiet, squeezing his knees” (Capote 277). Otherwise, Perry remained “content and serene; he refused to budge” (277). However, when he knows of Dick selling him out, he is ready to present all the story of the murder to Dewey, the chief detective interrogating him.
In spite of the horrific tale, Dewey “found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger… for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another” (Capote 303). Still, Dewey does not aspire to “either forgiveness or mercy” (303). He is ready to follow on his duty in collecting evidence to condemn both Dick and his pawn Perry to their deaths.
In Cold Blood emphasizes the presence of dark side of the society, a shadowy underworld that may intrude upon the ‘normal’ life of ‘respectable’ people at any time. It is an open warning to the ‘normal’ society of the wolves stalking their prey that makes this novel so memorable and even frightening.