In 2011 I had very few choices. When you allocate text to a VCE class there are lots of factors impacting that decision. Unfortunately the first is not ‘Do I like, or even know, any of the books that are listed?’ The first decision is usually ‘What books are new to the list?’ See, books are only on the list for four years so you want to get bang for your buck. Preparing a text for VCE Literature is a lot of work and I want a full four years to milk all the reading, preparation and, hopefully, knowledge and insight gained.
But in 2011 I had very few choices. I was not able to choose a play or a novel. I already had one of each and having another of either text type limits the students’ choices for the exam. I could put on some poetry but it tended to be very challenging to do well and, to be honest, I was only just wrapping my head around how to teach it in an analytic way. There were some great options but they were all in List A (the non-examinable list) and I had to replace a List B (examinable texts). I had a collection of short stories by Peter Carey, a non-fiction text about bushfires and a novel that they seemed to have placed accidently in the ‘Other Literature’ category. It was by Truman Capote.
So I picked up a copy of In Cold Blood in August of 2011. Thank the heavens for limited choices.
If you haven’t ever heard of In Cold Blood then I expect bunches of flowers and chocolates in the months ahead. You have likely heard of Capote and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That, I am yet to read but I can vouch for his account of a real life murder that occurred in a small American town in the late 1950s.
Approached by the editors of The New Yorker to do a piece on the murder exposing the seamy underbelly of the quiet southern town of Holcomb, Capote took his close friend Harper Lee down to do some investigative journalism. Lee was far better at ingratiating herself into the social networks of the quiet farming town and soon had the inside scoop on the murder of the Clutter family. Herb Clutter, the father, his wife Bonnie and children, Nancy and Kenyon, had been shot in their farm home in the middle of the night and no-one could determine why. They had little money in the house and the family was well liked in the area.
Truman decided that he would create a new form of journalistic reporting that used all of the literary devices common to novels in order to capture the essence of the story. His ‘reportage’ was to set the tone for true crime writers for decades to come. The problem was Truman’s article turned into a novel that took him almost 10 years to finish and it nearly destroyed him.
In the finest of internet traditions I must warn that the following contains some spoilers. You have been herein warned.
As his novel developed Truman formed friendships with the police investigating the case and was actually in the lead inspector’s home having dinner on the night that they caught the killers – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Truman was in the crowd to see the murderers brought into the town lockup to await their court case. Harper Lee was even able to befriend Hickock’s mother during the trial.
This inside scoop was only to intensify as Capote came to meet the pair and learn of their preparations and premeditations leading up to the crime. He heard about their flight from the law into Mexico and their return to the southern states where they were eventually caught for passing fake cheques. While in prison the pair spoke openly to Capote and the smaller of the two, Perry Smith, formed a close bond with the writer based around a similar troubled upbringing. In both bio-pics which centre around the development of this text – Capote (2005) starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman and, in my opinion the far better, Infamous (2006)starring Toby Jones – the suggestion is made that Capote and Smith formed a relationship that could never be consummated and that having to watch his new friend put to death for his crimes was too much for Capote to bear.
In Cold Blood is told in four parts. The first, ‘The Last To See Them Alive’, interweaves the last day of the Clutters and the preparations of the killers together in a way that, given the reader knows what is coming, raises the tension and expectation to such heights that I find it difficult to re-read each year as I prepare to teach it. The crime scene is described by an English teacher in the text but the murder not recounted until much later in the novel. In part two, ‘Persons Unknown’, the reader follows the exploits of the murderers as they escape capture at the same time as reading of the reactions of the town and the police investigating the case. Part three, ‘Answers’, follows the court trial and begins to characterise the men as anything but cold blooded killers and instead challenges the just outcomes of the court system for not allowing psychological evidence to mitigate the penalty for the crime. The final section, ‘The Corner’, follows the long road to the final moments where Perry Smith is hung. One can sense the torment of waiting, both for the inmate but also for the writer. The section is peppered with tales of the horrors of capital punishment and illustrates that it is anything but merciful or quick.
The title, thus, is quite a red-herring. While the actions of the men are never excused or forgiven the reader comes to see that all killing, sanctioned or otherwise, is done in cold blood. The state endorsed murders of the men who are shown to have had little choice or control over their life direction are depicted in the same gruesome manner as the original murders themselves.
As a text in the classroom I have never seen such a visceral reaction and had such heated debates over morality and ethics as are raised while teaching this text. Nor have I seen such empathy for killers and those who cannot escape themselves.
In Cold Blood is not an easy read by any stretch and in any way. It is a weighty tome, densely packed and densely written. It is also a ravaging story that will keep you awake and have you confused, questioning who you feel for and why you feel that way. It is not an easy read, but most certainly a worthy one. I am glad I chose it.