Category Archives: In Cold Blood

A True Crime Book List

B001D23SXA-IxaDh-200x300Thanks to this tweet from Mary Kayler, I found this list of the nine most disturbing True Crime books. I was happy to see that three of which are part of the True Crime course syllabus Paul Bond and I came up with for this semester. In addition to In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter (actually we watched the TV movie which is awesomer), and The Stranger Beside Me, there were at least two others I would consider if I were to teach this course again that are on that list. For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz provides an account of the Leopold and Loeb murder of the 1920s, something that would have worked well this semester to
frame the broader issues of the intellectualization of crime, thrill killing, queer studies, and a broader sense of a declining moral coda in the 20th century. The other book that I would consider is Columbine (2010), an account by Dave Cullen of the school shootings that shook the nation in 1999—but have almost become routine 15 years later. I think a book look this would help us start dealing with mass shootings like Virginia Tech, Aurora,  and even Newtown a bit more. It just still seems so raw and horrible to have to try and actually wrestle with. All the more reason we should, I guess.9170

I felt like I read Gommorah by Roberto Saviano because Antonella was reading it, and I got to hear all the gruesome details about the seemingly boundless brutality of Cosa Nostra. Unlike the U.S., Italy has far fewer romantic notions about organized crime. They understand how ugly it is through and through. And, to be fair, this is an itialian True Crime book, our class focuses on the current empire ;)

9781101608630.340x340-75That leaves three more books from the list. Joe McGinness’s Fatal Vision, which I had considered for the syllabus early on but left it out because for a survey of U.S. crime narratives over 300 years we were getting far too focused on the 1970s and 80s. Nonetheless, it is a truly disturbing book, but not oen I want to really tackle given it’s like a true crime version of The Shining wherein Jack Torrance wins.

The account of the Unabomber, A Mind for Murder by Alston Chase, is actually one I usually wouldn’t have all that much interest in reading. However, from the description it seems to blame the monster Kaczynksi became on academia, which might be just what I need these days.

0393325563Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder.

Adjunct culture made him do it!

last-victim-jason-moss-paperback-cover-artThe Last Victim by Jason Moss is a book about how John Wayne Gacy tried to kill the author when he went to visit him in jail. Really? There’s a book about this? How shocking, as if the 33 boys and young men he sexually assaulted, murdered, and buried beneath his house were not enough evidence he might have violenet tendencies. What’s more, during high school I read the mass paperback Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan which scared the hell out of me for a long time. Gacy was a dark, dark hole of humanity, one serial killer is enough for any true crime course.

All that said, however, thanks to Paul Bond our True Crime class was very much on the cutting edge of new true crime work given one of the works we assigned, “Mad Love: The Ballad of Freddie and Allie,” was just nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize for creative nonfiction.


A Curious Still Life

in_cold_blood_xlgAs I mentioned in my last post, one of the things Paul and I are trying to do with blog posts, videos, etc. for the True Crime course is model some of what we want to see. The group that is leading the discussion on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood did a good job with background information and summarizing what happened in the first half of the book, but any good discussion of a book needs to anchor its discussion and arguments directly in the text. One of the things you hopefully learn as an undergrad when taking a literature class is how to read closely. How to examine specific passages to pick-up on particular elements of style, voice, etc. At the same time you also need to connect how a given passage connects to the broader themes of the book.

For the second half of In Cold Blood Paul and I have asked each group member to do just that. Choose a passage or two from the book and closely examine its broader themes, particularly elements of style that also feedback into the ideas Capote is getting at in the book. An example we talked about in class on Thursday was from Section 1 and it’s a description of the back seat of Dick and Perry’s car.

Dick was driving a 1949 black 1949 Chevrolet sedan. As Perry got in, he checked the back seat to see a if his guitar was safely there; the previous night, after playing for a party of Dick’s friends, he had forgotten and left it in the car. It was an old Gibson guitar, sandpapered and waxed to a honey-yellow finish. Another sort of instrument lay beside it—-a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun, brand-new, blue-barreled, and with a sportsman’s scene of pheasants in flight etched along the stock. A flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and a hunting vest fully packed with shells contributed further atmosphere to this curious still life. (22)†

I brought this passage up during class Thursday because it, like so many others in this book, foreshadows and encapsulates the tensions and themes that made this book a classic. One of the immediate elements of this passage frame possibly the most powerful theme in this book, namely that cold blooded murderers are actually people. Perry embodies this brilliantly here (and an issue that only gets more complicated as the book proceeds) as he is scanning the back seat for his guitar, which he actually plays at parties fro friends, has deep affection for and demonstrates he can actually create something (not only destroy). This is something that is echoed continually throughout the book as it focuses on Perry as both murderer and human at once—a complex framing of the banality of evil that might be the most horrific part of the whole text.

And this very theme is written brilliantly into this passage as the description seamlessly moves from the guitar to “another sort of instrument” right beside it, namely “a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun” which captures the murderous side of Perry. What’s more, this shotgun does not invoke an idyllic hunting scene that focuses around pheasants, but rather scenes of two men hunting down a family based on a similarly fanciful vision of gold and treasures to be found on the Clutter farm. This is all further reinforced by the list of hunting sundries in the description that illustrate with painful detail how everyday tools quickly become monstrous when seen through the lens of violence this scene is literally driving towards.

Finally, the the last line of this passage, “curious still life,” made just as well be another name for the entire book. Not only is Capote introducing a more ethereal literary voice to this hardboiled situation, but he’s also providing a curious still life to a moment of time in American culture. The idyllic vision of post-war America running on a crash course with the underbelly of the dream embodied by lost souls like Perry. But this is not an excuse, or even an argument, but rather freezing a documentary moment of time into a literary tableaux —the mashing up of art and reality. A curious still life that at once pushes the story forward as much as it foreshadows what’s to come while at the same time brilliantly demonstrating the larger tensions, themes, and ideas that define this work of art.


† We used this edition of the book for the discussion, so the page number for the quote copied above would be for that edition.

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.