Author Archives: phb256

Hearing voices

In a futile attempt to be efficient, I’ve been reading In Cold Blood in book form and listening to the audiobook. The audio format lets me use my drive time more or less productively. Unfortunately it’s not indexed in a way that makes it easy to pick reading where the audio left off, and vice versa.

Listening to an audiobook is a different experience from reading, largely because there’s an extra layer of interpretation. So it gives you something more than the printed version, but also takes away some of your freedom of interpretation. The voice actor reading the book decides the rhythm and the emphasis, and may throw in vocal characterization. Capote describes Perry Smith as having a soft and lispy voice, but that doesn’t really come through in the audio version.

But I love this scene between the detective and Perry’s former landlady:

There’s a level of personality in that reading that I probably wouldn’t have taken from the text. I wouldn’t have read [pause] “uh-huh” [pause] the same way. But the pacing is a big part of that.

Here’s an earlier scene where Dick’s mother tells a detective about Perry:

Perfume and oily hair make me think salesman rather than ex-con, but the Hickocks come from a different place and time than me. Again, I don’t think the rhythm or emphasis are the way I would have heard it in my head. Capote puts some dialect in people’s speech, like when Dick says he’s “a normal” instead of just “normal,” but the reader here, Scott Brick, adds accents and speech patterns that bring the characters further to life.

“In dreams…I walk with you”

YaxchilanDivineSerpentI’m fascinated by Perry’s dream. If this were fiction, this section would be riddled with symbolism. There’s Biblical imagery, with the serpent in the tree. The idea that the love of money is the root of all evil. A premonition that reaching for easy riches will be his downfall.

Since I was a kid, I’ve had this same dream. Where I’m in Africa. A jungle. I’m moving through the trees toward a tree standing all alone. Jesus, it smells bad, that tree; it kind of makes me sick, the way it stinks. Only, it’s beautiful to look at – it has blue leaves and diamonds hanging everywhere. Diamonds and oranges. That’s why I’m there – to pick myself a bushel of diamonds. But I know the minute I try to, the minute I reach up, a snake is gonna fall on me. A snake that guards the tree. This fat son of a bitch living in the branches. I know beforehand, see? And Jesus, I don’t know how to fight a snake. But I figure, Well, I’ll take my chances. What it comes down to is I want the diamonds more than I’m afraid of the snake. So I go to pick one, I have the diamond in my hand, I’m pulling at it, when the snake lands on top of me. We wrestle around, but he’s a slippery sonofabitch and I can’t get a hold, he’s crushing me, you can hear my legs cracking. Now comes the part it makes me sweat to even think about. See, he starts to swallow me. Feet first. Like going down in quicksand.

And that bit about his legs cracking foreshadows his motorcycle accident. He says, “I know beforehand,” and elsewhere he talks about seeing things before they happen. If this were fiction, there would be a lot of deep meaning in this passage. But this is allegedly true. What are we to make of it then? Maybe his memory of his childhood dream is colored by his subsequent history, distorted by the repressed voice of his conscience.

And I really want to know the distinction between a “son of a bitch” and a “sonofabitch.” I can’t imagine Capote did that by accident.

Perry was checked for insanity, and the judge was having none of it. Something about the dream seems dissociative to me, although my knowledge of dream psychology is minimal.

…the parrot, which had first flown into his dreams when he was seven years old, a hated, hating half-breed child living in a California orphanage run by nuns – shrouded disciplinarians who whipped him for wetting his bed. It was after one of these beatings, one he could never forget (“She woke me up. She had a flashlight, and she hit me with it. Hit me and hit me. And when the flashlight broke, she went on hitting me in the dark”), that the parrot appeared, arrived while he slept, a bird “taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower,” a warrior-angel who blinded the nuns with its beak, fed upon their eyes, slaughtered them as they “pleaded for mercy,” then so gently lifted him, enfolded him, winged him away to “paradise.”

It’s one thing for a 7 year old to have an imaginary guardian angel. It’s quite another for him to imagine his guardian ripping out someone’s eyeballs. He talks a childhood trauma. I feel like there’s more that he’s not telling us. Later in the section he has a list of words worth remembering - thanatoid, facinorous, dyspathy, psilopher, depredate – all words which speak to his issues. There’s a whole “truth is stranger than fiction” thing going on in this section. Capote didn’t do that by accident either. He has a sympathy for his subject that he wants us to share.


I grew up watch Dragnet reruns, so when I read “The Black Dahlia” I couldn’t help but hear Jack Webb’s voice and his distinctive cadence in my head. Here’s a video of him clowning around with Johnny Carson:

He sounded the same when he was serious, except people didn’t laugh on the set. His show would always start out saying, “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Of course, more than the names were changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the essence of the stories came from police files and news reports.

ellroymugshotThe Black Dahlia is a true story so gruesome it sounds like it should be fiction. Even that police sergeant’s name: Finis, as in “the end.” A fiction writer would be jeered for giving a homicide investigator a name like that.

Ellroy wrote a Dahlia story of his own, which was similar to Torso in that he invented two detectives and a resolution to the crime. Something about Ellroy’s writing style reminds me of the ping-pong dialogue in Dragnet. Those clipped sentences and short paragraphs, sometimes only two sentences, or even one, sound almost like they could be Joe Friday, except Joe kept it clean. Ellroy’s not so concerned with decorum and respectability.


mitchellI suspect most of us have heard of H.L. Mencken. He gets quoted all the time, because he had a lot to say and he said it so well. But Joseph Mitchell was a new name to me. From what I read in the Gale Literature Resource Center, he’s well-known in literary circles, a writer’s writer and an early practitioner of literary journalism. That’s the genre or form of writing that Capote is working in in In Cold Blood (There’s has to be something grammatically wrong that sentence, but I take pride in the fact that I used “in” three times in a row). Literary journalism is closely related to creative nonfiction, the genre Sonja Livingston used with “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie.” It’s a nice little connecting thread that runs through the readings. There are a lot of them though. It only takes a little looking.

Burning down the house

shantytown fire
torsopageIn the appendix to Torso, Bendis says that people often think that the shantytown fire was made up for dramatic purposes. Maybe the idea that police would burn poor people out of house and home is hard to believe. Because that never happens. Parts of the book are fictionalized, of course, like the two main police characters. In that way it reminds me of American Tabloid, which makes no pretense to true crime. But the basic facts of the tale are verifiable and supported by archival material. And we’ve seen embellishments in true crime before, like William Fly’s wobbly knees at the gallows, or Alice Mitchell as the bloodthirsty Amazon.

Bendis says Ness took a lot of criticism for the fire, and that many think it ruined his political career. I was curious what was said about the fire at the time. I don’t have access to Cleveland papers, but was able to check national news from the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Looking at articles that mention “Kingsbury Run,” or “Ness” and “Cleveland,” from the day of the fire and the days that followed, I see no mention of it. The bodies get coverage, as do some of the leads, but burning down the encampment, which seems like it would be a newsworthy event, gets no mention. Why might that be? Was it not newsworthy? Or was it something the newspapers didn’t want to talk about?

NYT torsoWaPo torso torso survivor

Cleveland rots

In 1935, Cleveland’s so called Boy Scout Mayor, Harold Burton, decided to do something about official corruption and organized crime. He brought in a heavy hitter: Eliot Ness.

At that time, Cleveland was the most dangerous city in America. Ness was in the unenviable position of having to go after the police force and the mob at the same time. And as if that wasn’t enough, mutilated bodies started showing up. He had a serial killer on his hands.

The victims were not only killed, they were also decapitated and dismembered. As a result, most of them were unidentified.

It was thought that most of the victims came from the shantytown in the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland. The residents tended to be impoverished drifters. After body parts were discovered outside of Ness’ office, he led a raid on the shantytown, driving out the occupants. And he burned the area down.

Ness took some heat for this action. Some suspects were identified and questioned, but the killer was never caught. The killings stopped in 1938. It was a rough patch of history, but the city carried on. You know why? Because Cleveland rocks.

I know. Most of those songs had nothing to do with crime. Maybe next time, on crime time radio.

“Find the heads.”

torso1Bendis tells the Torso story in a very cinematic fashion. The dramatic lighting and the camera angles all look like something out of film noir. Then there’s that repetition from panel to panel, sometimes with slight variations, that gives it a filmstrip feel. At the same time, each section opens and closes with a fade in/fade out, zoom lens effect, but the transition isn’t from image to blur but rather image to halftone dot. In one way this reminds me of the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein, probably because I’ve studied art history, but the intention is probably to tie the story to newspapers, which are becoming a thing of the past, at least in printed form. Bendis also incorporates photos from news archives in the illustration, in a very deft manner. It’s sort of reminiscent of Cold Case, although the graphic novel predates the TV show. There was a grubbiness to newsprint and ink. It would smear easily and get on your fingers and make you feel dirty. Bendis recognizes this in an interview: “Crime stories should be dirty and seedy and there is nothing dirtier and seedier than rubbing ink on the page.”torso2

Another atmospheric element Bendis brings into the design is the spiraling pattern of the panels on some of the pages. Maybe this is to show that things are spiraling out of control, or spiraling down the drain. It pulls control away from the reader, in that one has to turn the book to read it properly. It’s a little heavy handed and a little annoying, but I like the experimentation

Bastardy Bonds

When we were kids my brothers and I were doing something annoying, I don’t remember what, but it prompted my aunt to call us bastards. Of course, we thought that was the funniest thing ever, and never passed up a chance to recount the story in her presence over the decades that followed.

So in looking into the background on Poor Naomi, it appears that she had a history of jacking up her baby daddies for child support funds, which at that time in North Carolina were called bastardy bonds. The bonds were not so much to support the child as to insure the county against having to do so. And if a woman did not identify the father or post the bond herself, she was subject to imprisonment.

A brief history of Col. David Fanning : also, Naomi Wise, or theThere is a poetic account of her life that supports this view, which differs from the song. Yet this is contradicted by another source. Perhaps one version comes from the killer’s people and the other from the victim’s family. I’m not sure that anyone knows the true provenance of either. Ballads and stories tend to change as they pass from one teller to another. Bob Dylan had his own take on “Naomi Wise“:

The Randolph County historian pieced together a lot of this from various primary source documents. It’s fascinating to look at these stories, supposedly true, and find so many contradictions. What is the truth, and why is it so changeable?


In “Mad Love,” the last sentence of the opening paragraph says,

But Alice Mitchell was the first to be lassoed by Frederica Ward’s charms…

I like the verb in there, lassoed. Mainly I associate it with cowboys and rodeo. It suggests catching, and possibly taming, something powerful and wild. But a lasso is also a loop of rope, just like a noose – a noose which might be used for execution, or lynching, or suicide. She could have used caught or attracted instead, but lassoed brings all that imagery to our minds, conscious or subconscious, and all the layers of meaning that go with it.

We had talked earlier about how different authors approach crime narrative from different perspectives – Lincoln and Thomas Gray as lawyers, Bierce as a journalist, Mather as a preacher. This piece is what I would call literary art, where using just the right word makes all the difference.

Fred & Allie, then & now

Untitled 1

Holder, A.B. (1893). The Mitchell-Ward Case, in Virginia Medical Monthly. Vol. 19, pp. 246-249.

I find it fascinating to compare “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie” to the way the story was received at the time it happened. Livingston’s essay was published this year, in a society that’s beginning to accept same-sex marriage. Yet the case occurred in a time and place where same-sex attraction was considered by medical professionals to be a perversion, unthinkable to common, decent men. As such, it was major national news. Three years after the fact, an Alice Mitchell article led the second page of a San Francisco paper. The news at that time was, yes she’s insane, but she likes men too. The murder ballad of the incident, “Alice Mitchell and Freddy Ward,” denies their love outright, and says it was a killing over a man. But if it was, would it have been news? Would it be remembered?

One of the things that struck on the first reading of the essay was the line, “But who would have remembered it then, a man killing his wife?” Sad to say, that’s too mundane to be memorable. A female slasher is news, and a female killing another over a doomed love affair is the stuff of national headlines. But there’s another line in the essay, when Alice is whining of her heartbreak to the cook, who responds, “at least you have plenty of money.” That’s probably just as important in making the story significant. They’re both society girls, from the best of families. If they were poor immigrants living in tenements in NYC, would the public have noticed? Would the motive had mattered?