In Cold Blood: The Truman Smith Affair

This analyzes Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith. A sophisticated and compassionate argument — one that accounts for both Perry’s and Capote’s humanity.

Taking In Cold Blood off my bookshelf, two green eyes glare chillingly from the front cover, hovering vacantly with calm awareness of the brutality inside. “On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces.” No motive. No clues. After completing his most acclaimed piece, Truman Capote remains adamant: “If I had realized then what the future held, I never would have stopped in Garden City. I would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell” (Garrett).

Perry Edward Smith is Capote’s primary focus throughout his six year coverage of the murder investigation, and the story is consumed by this infatuation. Reaching for and mirroring Perry, Capote presents an ultimate piece of journalistic, non-fiction narrative-and it’s not the factual or historical quality that’s so addictive. It’s the vulnerability of their relationship and the fragility of reasoning that Capote reveals that will continue to infatuate readers, quenching our cravings for knowledge and experience to anticipate individual fallibilities. It is this quality that countless critics-of renowned newspapers and numerous scholastic journals-have labored to grapple with since its publishing.

Truman Capote, our “artistic charmer,” “discoverer of death,” and neurotic purveyor of fact plays host to those green eyes as he interprets our world with his most intimate partner (Knickerbocker). Truman strongly identifies with Perry-and seeing himself in the protagonist-presents him as George Plimpton writes, “with deeply dimensional sympathy” (Plimpton). Novelist Harper Lee, close friend of Capote, relates that “every time Truman looked at Perry he saw his own childhood” (McAleer). Both men’s early years were nomadic: estranged from their fathers, neglected by their mothers, filled with a “primal hunger” to escape “poverty and obscurity,” both possessing talents that “went unrecognized and therefore unencouraged” (McAleer).

The first three sections, moving quickly and easily, cutting routinely back and forth between characters, foster a structural rigidity enabling Capote to approach the characters’ lives and minds. Half of the eighty-six segments of In Cold Blood are dedicated to Perry’s narrative, most from his perspective, with Truman insisting that: “my portrait of him is absolutely one hundred per cent the way he was” (Bellis). In the fourth section, “The Corner,” Capote delves more predominantly into his “judgment” of Perry intensifying his search for a satisfying moral sentencing. Capote isolates Perry, contrasting him with Dick and a tainted society, making him the easiest character-and killer-to identify with as he becomes ensnared by shallow sentiments. Perry quenches our need for sensitivity and awareness to treat the brutality of the text-qualities deliberately absent in other characters. This may initially agitate readers, but Capote’s novel challenges us to relate to and sympathize with Perry as we have gradually connected and aligned our train of reflection with his. Capote also displays a sense of disenchantment with his relationship-weaving a sense of inevitability like the eyes ominously express on the cover-further complicating the text and tormenting readers’ honest morality.

Perry’s written statement in “The Corner” is specific and telling, very similar to Capote’s style, creating reassuring familiarity-his voice serving as our only narrative “face.” Perry can’t find time to transcribe more than minute segments of his life with civilized descriptions and gruff imaging, and finishes saying “there’s much I haven’t said that may interest you” (276). Capote doesn’t face this dilemma to the same degree, though it’s evident that In Cold Blood would not be nearly as impressive if it didn’t include the intricate detail Capote manages to deliver.

Not only is Truman and Perry’s writing style similar, so is their structuring. Perry’s first sentence ends at his birthplace in “Hunting, Elko Count, Nevada… situated way out in the boon docks, so to speak” (273). I find it difficult leaving to chance, the parallel between this and Capote beginning his testament with, “Holcomb… western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”” (3). Both highlight the desolate environments of their areas and place readers in unfamiliar and unwelcoming territory. Perry ends his statement with a postscript that Capote’s final section imitates, stating that he feels “remarkable exhilaration being among people with a purpose and sense of dedication to carry out that purpose” (276). This idealized pursuit is the quality that Truman searches for in Perry, pursuing to heroicize and exonerate him, authenticating and validating Truman’s fascination with Perry.

Perry’s matches Capote’s emphasis on presenting fact and leaving readers to make obvious conclusions. He writes “there was no rule or discipline, or anyone to show… right from wrong,” that the cottage mistress “thought it funny to put some kind of ointment” on his penis, to “severely” and “ferociously beat” him “with a large black leather belt,” pulling him out of bed by his “hair” to “drag” him to the bathroom (275). His vivid statement matches Capote’s eidetic imagery matched with a delicate, emotionally steady voice. They torment readers while revealing vulnerability and sensitivity that drowns any alienation readers may feel for their standpoints.

Laying out facts and apparent observations indirectly leads readers to ask themselves why nobody has done anything to stop Perry’s obvious progression to manslaughter. Perry speaks of joining the army, receiving help “getting around,” recruiting to Japan, being court marshaled several times and upon returning, receiving “special recognition as being the first Korean Vet to come back” (276). It is apparent now, like Capote’s narrative highlights, that this tainted society besieging and neglecting Perry actually primes him for failure. He went to prison, got out, went to Kansas and “got into the situation” he’s in now without any extended guidance-not until his fate is sealed in prison. This invalidates the society seeking to condemn Perry for his wrongdoings-and Perry laments disjointedly, “No time for more” (276).

Perry is so detached from his life’s failures, it seems to bewilder Capote who toils to reach and understand him. The lonesome disparity of reflection that Capote’s narrative structure exemplifies-methodically approaching his thoughts and feelings for Perry-lays out for us his fragility. While he tries to reach Perry, Capote knows like us how he will end. This knowledge makes closure for Perry arguably impossible to attain, despite Truman’s efforts to provide this to himself through writing. The evident susceptibility in Capote’s presentation likely influences his assertion that the novel is non-fiction. His six years in Kansas and with Perry-the emotional toil he lived through-was more “real” than anything else he has experienced. Arguably, Capote uses the journalism “label” and his absence in the narrative to protect his emotions from scrutiny. But this only emphasizes his dependence on Perry, and reveals the emotional weight of In Cold Blood for him-coming to terms with and understanding his trauma.

Capote’s comes to terms with his passion for Perry by forcefully contrasting him with society and his partner, Richard Hickcock.In the final fragmented section Capote delivers our tragedy to us. His focus remains on Perry, specifically, Perry’s contemplations and self-judgments, his relationships with other people and their expressed feelings towards him, professional analyses of his mental condition and Perry’s chronically unsustainable relationship with Dick.

Perry appears in “The Corner” flawlessly contrasting with society’s norm by becoming “the first man ever” to stay “in the ladies’ cell,” and later being “sartorially misplaced” in court looking “lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field” (252, 272). Capote emphasizes Perry being emotionally detached from Dick, and physically separated for the first time in the novel, only to interact through written form on paper airplanes caste between cells. Dick has already confessed and betrayed Perry, accusing him of killing the Clutters before weakly “fainting” as he “fell to the floor” (230, 232). Capote cleverly lays blame on Dick, when Perry unashamedly professes that he was the only killer, only after being provoked when Dick “dropped his guts all over the goddam floor… about the nigger” (232). Somehow Dick’s imprudence becomes the only prudent reason they are discovered-despite the police identifying them earlier-and by including investigator Dewey’s reflection that Perry’s confession “failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design,” Capote confirms Perry’s “innocence” for us from a reliable source (245).

Dick’s defiling of continues when his statement is laid after Perry’s, despite our disdain being obviously aggravated by Capote portraying him to be juvenile, back-stabbing and emotionally “primitive.” His statement includes “vague” and “normal” memoirs of his early life that was predominantly the “same as most other” boys’ (277-9). His “semi-poor” childhood environment was “strict,” amidst “a lot of toys,” and his home was “clean” and “neat,” what you’d expect from a man who attained “above average grades” (277-9). His becoming an accomplice is now even more intolerable. The fact that he had all this and only almost became a murderer, may lead many to an arguably sick opinion of him being pathetic. Any tendency for this reasoning will frighten readers-as Capote reasons-to haphazardly reject thoughts of Dick, immediately falling for sympathizing with Perry.

Their statements confirm Dick’s egotistical, self-righteous love for himself, echoing the hedonistic instinct Capote despises in him. Dick’s ending is repuslive -Capote successfully stoking groveling images of him begging-leaving readers easily to loath him. Including Dick’s statement directly after Perry’s makes their incompatibility obvious and stirs a sense of pity for Perry who readers and Capote know and agree deserves better. Perry’s inability to reason and reject Dick from receiving his empathy displays his frailty and inexperience, leading us to agree later with psychologists, that he could not have mentally stood up to killing the Clutters.

Capote labors to uncover why a man so intelligent and sensitive could sanely kill four family members with such apathy. His final section displays an exhilaration he feels-like Perry who expresses his sense of “remarkable exhilaration being among people with a purpose and sense of dedication to carry out that purpose” (276). Capote wrote In Cold Blood not because of his trauma but because of his utter adoration for Perry. The exhilaration Capote presents comes from the incredible talent and potential he sees in Perry.

Two segments in the middle of “The Corner” serve as the culmination of In Cold Blood, finally spilling the tension devotedly built up till this point. Donald Cullivan-a “staid young Catholic” and “successful engineer”-becomes Perry’s character witness because “it was something I couldn’t afford not to do” (288). That such a man came to see him gives Perry a great deal of integrity. This supports Perry who, despite Cullivan probing to “gauge the depth of” his contrition, isn’t sorry-“nothing about it bothers me a bit” (291). By involving Cullivan to reveal Perry’s alien opinion, Capote provides readers an unprejudiced, highly educated, Harvard individual for us to bond with as a man who “could scarcely credit so detached an attitude” so “devoid of conscience”-convinced that Perry must be “confused” or “mistaken” (291). Perry disagrees and compares that “soldiers don’t lose much sleep”-“they murder, and get medals for doing it” (291). Although most readers won’t relate to or acknowledge Perry’s logic, they will support Cullivan who finally answers, “Yes. I like you” (291). This brief segment is situated for readers to complete their moral judgment of Perry. To end it Capote makes a final plea for sympathy from readers not to judge a man who just wants to cut his wrists, as Perry pleads, with someone “who cares about me a little bit” (292).

Capote uses the next segment ingeniously to simultaneously inspire overwhelming resentment towards Dick and include doctoral analyses to justify Perry’s indifference in the previous section (298). Dick’s father describes what a “happy-go-lucky boy” his son had been, “no trouble to anybody,” and that after an accident “he just didn’t act like the same boy”-his only contribution “relevant” to Dick’s “claim of temporary insanity” (292). Capote includes this-contrasting Perry’s indifference-painting Dick as a pathetic wuss, scraping, taking all that he can get from anyone that pities him, all obviously blind to his overwhelming egoism. The segment follows with Dr. Jones who, if he “had been permitted to discourse” would have concluded, with Dr. Joseph Satten’s endorsement, that Perry’s “emotional detachment and blandness” is “evidence of his mental abnormality,” and that “his personality structure is very nearly that of a paranoid schizophrenic reaction” (298). Capote includes these analyses to prove to readers that both the “professional and the amateur analyst reached conclusions not dissimilar” (302).

This marks Capotes last attempt of judgment on Perry and thereby releases any tension that would mark the following nine segments until his killer is hung. Throughout these final segments, nothing strikes further at readers’ emotions, neither resent or sympathy. Sparse additional friction is narrated between Perry and Dick-nothing more passionate or unordinary than their carefully silhouetted relationship up until the culminating segments. And for the first and only time in the entire novel Truman refers to Perry and Dick as “The Clutter slayers” (330). This is one of Capote’s efforts to personally disengage from his killer, emphasizing his own and the readers’ disconnect with Smith. Perry Edward Smith disappears, quietly and discretely-unnoticed-in his final scene “possessing a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded” (341).

Perry’s intelligence and sensitivity has been so sought after throughout In Cold Blood’s ceaseless asperity-unearthing our sympathy for his inexperience-eliciting our acceptance of his reasoning. Capote persuades his own loyal idolization of Perry with In Cold Blood becoming the non-fiction novel, narrative, of his traumatic test. It is Truman Capote’s honest testament of his own evolution-so innately appealing because it presents one of our greatest potential human weaknesses. Giving up evidence that would free Perry and Dick from hanging would scar Truman Capote with this fallibility-forgiving murder.

In the final scene, Capote’s attachment has already been torn from him, his devotions now slowly fading, walking “toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat” (343).

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4 Comments
  1. Adam
    Posted June 20, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Hey, great book getting deep into the psyche of a killer and a reporter turn admirer, the other killer, and society in general. This is a wicked essay covering the two main characters, Smith and Truman.

  2. shane Lewis
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 7:36 am

    I really like this analysis too. As I saw the film this impression was really stark. I read the book last year and would like now to do a Bachelor’s thesis on this topic especially in relation to the reliabilty of the book.

    Do you think that that is a worthwhile topic and do you know of any good research that could help me in this task?

    Best
    Shane

  3. James Leisure
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    This essay is a ill-conceived, slapdash heap of shit. Much too much pomp and lack of evidence to substantiate many of its claims.

  4. Smuffy
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    ^ Agreed with James, to be quite honest.

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