Small town murders have always been a topic of public interest and curiosity. There’s something chilling about the quiet careful killer, this person who sets people on edge, the fascination of their everyday psychology. These crimes initiate feelings of horror, a realization, no – a possibility that it could be you or your own, that a normal everyday person could kill you at any moment, for no reason at all. Simply wrong time, wrong place. In literature, a murderer is depicted as the most frightening form of human in tales of myth read as fiction, perhaps becoming a safe house for the reader, knowing this person may not exist exactly – only in the writer’s imagination. In non- fiction, true accounts strengthen the underlying beast in our minds awakening the reality; a blood red smack in the face that these monsters do in fact, exist and may possibly be very much alive in your community today.
Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ I found particularly painful considering its label as a nonfiction novel, raising the intensity even more so. It explores brutality in a very real sense as well as neglect, violence and pain in more ways than one. Capote’s tale is impressive and begins following the news of a family of dead victims with no leads or clues, and no motive for death- extremely well. The reader too is occupied, researching along with Capote; we are left feeling stunned and bewildered, angry and hurt yet Capote manages to reach certain destinations before the reader, soothing us through his journalistic investigation skills which answer so many questions throughout. He is the fly on the wall driving along route 66 with the suspects, at the Cutler’s neighbor’s house next door and throughout the town he explores through the thoughts of the community. He is also immersed in the very clear memories of the characters he so brilliantly portrays, reinforcing the quality of research he submitted to this story.
Constructed from a narrative which residents in Holcomb Kansas were already discussing over tables, Capote managed to awaken, unpick and magnify the murder of the Clutter family from an article he spotted in a newspaper. The chronological build up works well and shapes up the anticipation of what’s to come which is appreciated by the reader by the time the murder smacks you between the eyes. Capote’s portrayal of the Clutter family was realistic – a lovely family, led by a hardworking father with a sick wife. I believed that the Clutters were pillars of the community, wrapped in cotton wool by the townsfolk before and literally after death.
In come the petty criminals in search of easy money. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock both emblematic of stereotypical criminals. They are predictably greased up, smoking, drinking, covered in tattoos, journeying from state to state with dreams of money and Mexico on a whim. These hopes liquidize into nothingness, their reckless plan landing them in a major predicament which eventually leads to their death. The stupidity and rash decision to choose the Clutters home is in itself laughable, a somewhat weak reason I thought for two men to risk their lives fresh out of jail on a guess and a search for a unconfirmed safe.
During the process of writing ‘In Cold Blood’, Capote did mention that he wanted to keep an ‘emotional upper hand’ over the material which I believe gave the story a consistent pace in parts but was not apparent all the way through. I wasn’t certain what Capote was trying to achieve by diving into the lives of the criminals considerably more than he seemed to in comparison to anyone else. I say this because it did not make me feel any form of sympathy for Dick and Perry, nor make me understand, which I assume was part of Capote’s reasoning. The clutters were already dead when the criminals history came pouring out. There was also a very obvious, almost abnormal focus on Perry. Perry was clearly a troubled young man, from a complex and very difficult family life. Capote however drew on Perry’s gentle qualities like- tucking in Nancy to make her more comfortable, stopping Dick from raping her, even his acknowledgment that there was ‘something wrong with us. To do what we did.’’ Capote comments that Perry had sharp intuitions too, favoring him clearly as he was ‘Perry, little old big hearted Perry.’’ It was only after watching 2005’s Capote that my initial thoughts were strengthened. Did Capote see himself in the reflection of the misshapen man child that was Perry? Perry was the same man who boasts about killing a black man; he wished death on his sister and did eventually kill members of the Clutter family. I’m not sure if he is as smart as we may have been led to believe by Capote in parts. Perry’s childhood pain was also repeated in parts reinforcing Capote’s possible fondness of him, humanizing him further, away from the monster that he really was.
Dick on the other hand is portrayed as a smooth-talking womanizer, a pedophile and an ungrateful son. His use of ‘baby’ and ‘honey’ toward Perry only solidifies Perry’s position as feminine, the woman in this couple, Dick’s role being that of the breadwinning man. Perry was the softie who remained easily offended but reasonable to an extent, he was the singer and performer, the one with the conscience in this strange double act. Both are described by Capote as ‘bewildered’ and ‘virtually clueless’ which I would agree is an accurate representation.
Peter Sutcliffe now more commonly known as the Yorkshire Ripper is also humanized simply by the title of the novel ‘Somebody’s Husband, somebody’s son’. This dark story begins with Peter’s history and important figures in his life at the start; his family. The reader is braced for horror, the front cover comparing it with Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. Burns is very matter of fact throughout and too distances himself from any emotion. This could be because he spent three years in Bingley researching the truth and dealing with facts, instantly making him dependable to the reader unlike Peter Sutcliffe.
Peter too is portrayed from the start as a paranoid and a strange outcast with physical drawbacks similar to Perry. The build up from Peter’s birth even, begins with undesirable characteristics of the main character, making the reader doubt and ostracize the innocent child he was – only because we are fully aware of the man he will grow to be. Burns comfortably portrays a gloomy and repetitive tight knit community in Bradford, immersing the reader in Bingley and the simple life Peter so easily slipped back into. The chronological order of the murders though frustrating for the reader in reference to the police investigation, tolerates the case holdups in convicting Peter, as we know Peter will inevitably be caught soon. Burns does make it a point to also clarify Peter’s thoughts objectively throughout in some ways rationalizing the madness.
In parts, I didn’t feel Peter was portrayed as a murderer at all. Instead he was depicted as so normal, such a mama’s boy that I too believed him- even knowing he was inevitably a murderer. His brilliance at fluctuating from Peter to Ripper was disturbing as the Ripper seemed to explode out of his skin at random unexplained times, reinforcing his mental state. There were several moments that Burns revealed to the reader e.g. moments in the bathroom, the way he looked at women, the comments that he made, which may have been an afterthought to his friends and family, a confession even to Burns after the case, which clearly expose him as unquestionably ‘strange’, even in the confines of his own home. Burn is also able to clearly expose the misogynistic ideals which flowed ordinarily through Bingley’s pubs and homes, and shows us how these views took a seat on a metal swing in Peter Sutcliffe’s brain. Before reading ‘Somebody’s Husband’, and having not known much about this case myself, I found Peter’s hatred for prostitutes in link with his sudden need to murder cowardly and nowhere near a strong enough excuse, to begin and to continue with these excessively violent and unsettling murders. The violence of Peter Sutcliffe’s murders was startling. May we never forget that the moment when he returns to stab a victim again out of anger over a fiver making her intestines fall out.
The theme of mental illness is a current and relevant theme in both stories and there is a point to be made about all the criminals past ‘accidents.’ Peter’s violent murders in link to a previous motorcycle accident, allegedly triggering depression and ultimately schizophrenia. Perry is also said to have psychological damage after also a motorcycle accident while with the Army. Dick had also been in a car collision shifting features on his face, possibly causing lifelong damage.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed both texts. In regards to ‘In Cold Blood’, I found if one was to look between the lines this story was somehow, in comparison, more opinionated though possibly not Capote’s intention. It was coated in facts but sprinkled with sympathy; sadly I did not feel enough sympathy for those who deserved it. I happen to have respected Burns’ account of Peter a tad bit more, only because he allowed me to make up my mind- not on whether Peter was a murderer- this was fact, but whether his life had built up to the person he had claimed he’d become in his mind.