Book Club: Mesmerizing Mayhem In Cold Blood

Just outside the English classroom’s window, there’s a pretty little bricked-in courtyard. It’s rare that anyone goes out there. Not students nor staff. Today, a cool day in late October, the science class gets the pleasure. 

To access it, they duck under a tapestry of a raccoon waving Nixon-era peace signs covering the exterior door of the drafting classroom. It was in that classroom, behind that raccoon, that I started reading In Cold Blood.

Weeks had passed since then. Every day at school I’d crave the quiet time to continue. I dared not read the book at home, alone. It was too dark.

But on this fall day when the science class was in the garden, English class was inside doing silent reading. Just pages from the end, I took a brief reprieve from the suspense to admire the red and yellow foliage of the season. The beauty of it masks the reminder that the season is marching toward death. The weather, like this novel, is dazzling, despite the grisly nature of the show. 

To read In Cold Blood is to hold a burning match between your fingers.

Even with the flame approaching, it’s hard to put down. Even when the flame starts biting, it’s hard to look away.

From the very first page to the very last, you are transported to a version of Kansas that’s a far cry from Oz.

Capote drops you into a windswept little town called Holcomb. The scene is an expansive property with a house at its centre and little else. To the owner, the most prized possession is a row of fruit trees along a modest bank. Everything else in this world is quaint, quiet, and content. 

“Anyone who has made the coast-to-coast journey across America, whether by train or by car, has probably passed through Garden City, but it is reasonable to assume that few travelers remember the event.”

In Cold Blood

Even the dark sides of this rural life have blunted edges: a wife with muted malaise, a horse who doesn’t quite like to be ridden, and a Christian daughter with a Protestant boyfriend. 

But are these soft shadows cast by an otherwise squeaky-clean family enough to condemn them to torturous deaths?

When we meet the killers, we are riding along in the car with them. They don’t give us so much as a motive, but what we get from Capote’s writing is much more. 

The book is an exploration of the the case and everyone involved, from the victims as beloved members of the community to their killers’ mysterious motives.  

Spanning several cities and dipping south of the border, every place you are taken, every minor character you meet, takes full form in your imagination. 

Capote writes in such a way that you feel them in your presence. In the company of the killers, you can feel the sadness of one and the charisma of the other. You see them at their best and their worst–and the wheels turning that lead them there. As a result, the reader is left empathizing that, perhaps, this tragic slaying spree is rooted in an even more tragic backstory. 

Of the two killers, one of them is physically and psychologically broken by a life of misfortune. The other? Simply broken. The pages allow you to view and understand them without forgetting or forgiving their misdeeds against the victims. 

Even of the victims, Capote writes realistically. He does not diefy or damn any of the characters. Nor does he put a guage on their actions. As true reporters are inclined to do, he reports the story from start to finish with from the eyes of all the townspeople who were rocked by it, and the repercussions the killers faced with blood on their hands.

Face to Face with the Killers

That one big questions looms throughout the novel: Why kill the Clutters? What did the killers have to gain from this massacre? When the answers are revealed (a direct confession to the police) even the law-enforcement agents are left unspeakably sad, as if all the world’s ills were laid out like cards on a table.

I resolved not to look up the real press photos from the case… not until I had the full story. Not until I read the whole book.

Arriving at those final pages of the book, left fittingly blank, there was a lot to reflect on. This was a true story of terror in domestic America. I took the moment of silence for all the real victims, long since dead, clearly not forgotten. 

Then, I googled. 

I googled the infamous photo taken of the killers the day they were sentenced to death. They were captured leaving the courtroom, shackled and laughing

If it’s true that a photo tells a thousand words, this photo tells 100 times that. Capote wrote them and stamped it: In Cold Blood

“A month passed, and another, and it snowed some part of almost every day. Snow whitened the wheat-tawny countryside, heaped the streets of the town, hushed them.”

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood is a masterpiece for a reason. It’s chilly and heartbreaking in a way that’s much deeper than the dastardly deeds of two perceived monsters and the unfortunate victims they choose as prey.

When I saw them in their mugshots for the first time, the real them cemented in black and white, they felt familiar. From just reading this book, I knew their faces.

Capote draws up this true story in astounding detail. In this tale of murder, you get what it looked like to the eyes and what it felt like to the soul of every person who survived to recount it. This is not a book for the faint. It is a portrait of what happens to people who choose to (or are forced into) dealing with Old Man Trouble.

Reaching the end of Capote’s magnum opus prompts a sigh of relief. I was back in my own world, in view of the silly raccoon that was in the exact same place it was when I first cracked open this book. The trees outside waved at me with their firey fall colours. In Holcomb, I imagine, the scene was quiet, windswept, peaceful, as it is in the book’s opening sentence…

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.'”

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