My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tru, Nelle, and I Have a Bonding Moment
If you were to see me on the street, you’d see the semblance of a typical person who is not obsessed with 20th century American literature. This impression would be false. I’m utterly fascinated with Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Go Set a Watchman only aroused my appetite without bedding her down again. Watching the late, brilliant Philip Seymous Hoffman in Capote made it much worse.
I decided it was a shame there wasn’t more Harper Lee to read…such as her unfinished Alabama project, for example. Then I decided the closest thing to reading another Harper Lee novel was to “read” In Cold Blood, so I borrowed the audio book from the library.
The Clutters Were Genuinely Lovely People
I did fear the true story of four gruesome murders would be distressing. I had already seen Capote, though, and I found Truman Capote’s writing style to beautiful and gentle, easing the reader into the harrowing story. It’s helpful to know that while Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickok are central to the story, and I certainly wouldn’t want to romanticize them, there are a number of sympathetic people, or “characters,” in Capote’s presentation of his and Lee’s research. The Clutters themselves were genuinely good people.
According to the Wikipedia entry on In Cold Blood, some people who knew the Clutters didn’t think Capote’s portrayals of them were entirely accurate. They argued, for example, that he exaggerated the extent of Bonnie Clutter’s mental health problems. She’s still portrayed as a decent and loving person, despite her allegedly poor health. Perhaps part of the problem was that in the 1960s, and perhaps especially in more rural areas like Western Kansas, people were still apt to judge mental health illnesses as character flaws rather than psychological conditions analogous to physical health conditions.
That is to say, Mrs. Clutter wasn’t a bad person if she was struggling with clinical depression. Having depression isn’t voluntary, any more than Perry Smith’s childhood bed-wetting was voluntary. He didn’t deserve to be beaten for it, and Mrs. Clutter doesn’t deserve to be looked down upon whether she had a depressive illness or not.
All four of the Clutters who were in the household on November 15, 1959 were lovely people. For me, the two most interesting and personable ones were Herb and Nancy, the father and daughter. Nancy was a vibrant, intelligent, extraordinarily kind and accomplished 16-year-old.
Nancy Clutter and her friend Susan Kidwell dreamed of studying art at Kansas State University. This detail makes Nancy seem especially real and contemporary to me, since I have been to the art museum at Kansas State. If she had lived, her art might have resided there.
Kansas Bureau of Investigations investigator Alvin Dewey and his family are also sympathetic characters. In Capote, Mr. Dewey is played by the great character actor Chris Cooper. You may remember him from such films as A Time to Kill (based on the John Grisham novel), American Beauty (he kissed, and then murdered, Kevin Spacey’s character), and more recently the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (which I will blog about another day). His character comes off as a bit gruff, but in the novel, Alvin Dewey is a multifaceted man who’s actually quite human and likable.
The Smith Family
Perry's sister Barbara (“Bobo”) Johnson (“Mrs. Fred Johnson”) is good people. I hope her children had/have happy lives. Willie J (Perry’s fellow prisoner, a thief)’s response to Barbara's letter, quoted in its entirety, is condescending and possibly sexist. He looks down on Barbara because she's "just a housewife and mother." Her letter to Perry is actually both sympathetic and wise. That her primary occupation was raising three children should not be seen as a negative.
Their family history is fascinating and sad. John (“Tex”) and Florence Smith were the stars of an old-fashioned Wild West show. He was a red-haired Irish-American and she was Native American. She was a rodeo horseback rider, but her talent was eventually overshadowed by her alcoholism. The family lived a nomadic life before the couple split, and after the divorce Perry spent time in a group home run by Catholic nuns, where he was physically and emotionally abused. Neither parent seemed able to care for him properly.
The Smiths had four children, two boys and two girls. The older son, named Tex Jr. but later calling himself Jimmy, committed suicide after finding his wife dead in their bed, also a suicide victim. Perry’s sister Fern inherited her mother’s alcoholism and died by falling from a window, either by drunken accident or by suicide. The instability and suicide in the family cause me to suspect, in my unprofessional opinion, that bipolar disorder may have run in the Smith family. Perry showed signs of having bipolar disorder, possibly with psychotic features.
In addition to Herb, Nancy, Barbara, and Alvin Dewey, one of the more likable beings in this book is the Deweys' cat. First he defeated a cocker spaniel in dubious battle on the plains of Kansas, and then he hopped up on Mrs. Dewey's fancy buffet and helped himself to the crab meat. You go, kitty.
American Literature Allusions
The sheet music on the family's piano was "Comin' Thro' the Rye," the Robert Burns favorite and the titular allusion of 'The Catcher in the Rye.' It’s just an unfortunate synchronicity*, no doubt, but as we explored in a Banned Books Week post, Catcher in the Rye often seems to pop up around infamous crimes.
Other references to American literature have included Nancy's school play performance as Becky Thatcher, and Dick and Perry's duets of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—the titular allusion of The Grapes of Wrath.
*That which we call synchronicity is often, instead, a type of cognitive error in logic called a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, as I learned from this Fangs, Wands and Fairy Dust post.
I never heard the term voir dire before and had to look it up. Ultimately derived from the Latin term for “tell the truth,” it describes the process by which potential jurors are vetted by the prosecution and the defense.
Hickok and Smith
An abusive childhood and possible bipolar disorder didn’t in and of themselves make Perry Smith a bad person, but according to some accounts, he was the one who shot all four of the Clutters and the one who cut Herb’s throat. (It’s a bit confusing because the investigators thought, based on the varying temperatures of the bodies, that Herb had been killed last, but Perry’s story was that Herb was killed first.) Clearly, though, Dick Hickok planned the crime, including murdering all the family members so as to leave no witnesses, before he enlisted Perry.
Dick Hickok was a textbook sociopath. He didn’t have normal empathetic or sympathetic feelings toward normal people. (Perry may also have met the definition, although some of his actions showed signs of empathy and guilt, if not actual remorse). He was also sexually attracted to pubescent girls by his own admission. His execution by the state of Kansas, rather than a sentence of life with the possibility of parole (since Kansas did not have “life without parole” sentences at that time), possibly saved girls and very young women from falling victim to him.
These were not good people who were denied justice. They were intelligent and sometimes charming, but they were also violent, unrepentant criminals. It would be wrong to overly romanticize them, and I don’t think Capote did. I think he balanced his personal relationship with Hickok and Smith, such as it was, with journalistic-type objectivity about the crimes, and a caring eye toward the people who were affected by it.
Clifton Collins, Jr.
It's probably not that terrible, however, if you or I romanticize the actor who played Perry, Clifton Collins Jr., a little bit. The American actor of German and Mexican descent is unreasonably beautiful. His grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, was an Old Hollywood character actor who appeared as "comic relief" characters in some John Wayne movies. He was also a handsome man, but the grandson is dreamy.
Mark Pellegrino is pretty, too. Blond and blue-eyed like Dick Hickok but, one presumes, without the homicidal tendencies, he's part Italian and part Russian and various kinds of Northern European. I don't quite understand his fascination with Ayn Rand, but still, he's a pretty one.
Nonetheless, Collins is the one with the brown eyes so deep and dark, I'm almost angry at him for being so attractive. I have a boy crush.
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This review represents my own honest opinion. This was a library book. I was not obligated in any way to review it.
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Another essential book for a film buff's library, this one is packed with information and reviews. Some of the entries are quite extensive. JHR provides all the information you need, including complete cast and production staff. I find JHR's information invaluable. I like to read not only who acted in a movie, but who made it, both top-billed and lesser mortals. -- Ross Adams in DRESS CIRCLE mag.