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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966) (read in 2017)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of a brutal multiple-murder in Kansas in the late 1950s. Truman Capote puts together an exquisitely researched and well-told tale. It is a masterful exemplar of historical fiction, in that the facts are clearly represented, but they are decorated with fictive imagining of conversations that add a lot of flavor without distracting from the story or making it feel fake. In particular, a lot of the book involves the interaction between the two perpetrators before, during and after the murders—something that Capote could only have gleaned from interviews and notes, but that he writes as if he’d been there. Expertly and nigh-poetically written. Highly recommended.


“Except for taking off his boots, he had not troubled to undress. He had merely fallen face down across the bed, as though sleep were a weapon that had struck him from behind.”
Page 73
"There is much resentment in this community [that is, Garden City],” wrote Mr. Fox. “I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it very difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.“
Page 107
The car was moving. A hundred feet ahead, a dog trotted along the side of the road. Dick swerved toward it. It was an old half-dead mongrel, brittle-boned and mangy, and the impact, as it met the car, was little more than what a bird might make. But Dick was satisfied. “Boy!” he said—and it was what he always said after running down a dog, which was something he did whenever the opportunity arose. “Boy! We sure splattered him!”
Page 112
And yet it was true that the farm nowadays made him uneasy: the locked house, Nancy’s horse forlornly waiting in a field, the odor of windfall apples rotting under the apple trees, and the absence of voices—Kenyon calling Nancy to the telephone, Herb whistling, his glad “Good morning, Paul.”
Page 121
“[…] for he had lost his mother as well, learned to “despise” her; liquor had blurred the face, swollen the figure of the once sinewy, limber Cherokee girl, had “soured her soul,” honed her tongue to the wickedest point, so dissolved her self-respect that generally she did not bother to ask the names of the stevedores and trolley-car conductors and such persons who accepted what she offered without charge (except that she insisted they drink with her first, and dance to the tunes of a wind-up Victrola).”
Page 131
“(Sample page: “Thanatoid = deathlike; Omnilingual = versed in languages; Amerce = punishment, amount fixed by court; Nescient = ignorance; Facinorous = atrociously wicked; Hagiophobia = a morbid fear of holy places & things; Lapidicolous = living under stones, as certain blind beetles; Dyspathy = lack of sympathy, fellow feeling; Psilopher = a fellow who fain would pass as a philosopher; Omophagia = eating raw flesh, the rite of some savage tribes; Depredate = to pillage, rob, and prey upon; Aphrodisiac = a drug or the like which excites sexual desire; Megalodactylous = having abnormally large fingers; Myrtophobia = fear of night and darkness.”)”
Page 146
“Dewey’s ears ring with it—a ringing that almost deafens him to the whispery rush of Smith’s soft voice. But the voice plunges on, ejecting a fusillade of sounds and images: Hickock hunting the discharged shell; hurrying, hurrying, and Kenyon’s head in a circle of light, the murmur of muffled pleadings, then Hickock again scrambling after a used cartridge; Nancy’s room, Nancy listening to boots on hardwood stairs, the creak of the steps as they climb toward her, Nancy’s eyes, Nancy watching the flashlight’s shine seek the target (“She said, ‘Oh, no! Oh, please. No! No! No! No! Don’t! Oh, please don’t! Please!’ I gave the gun to Dick. I told him I’d done all I could do. He took aim, and she turned her face to the wall”); the dark hall, the assassins hastening toward the final door. Perhaps, having heard all she had, Bonnie welcomed their swift approach.”
Page 244
“He scowled, as though the problem was new to him, a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified color. “I don’t know why,” he said, as if holding it to the light, and angling it now here, now there.”
Page 290
Perry said, “Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean—I’m not. I don’t feel anything about it. I wish I did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit. Half an hour after it happened, Dick was making jokes and I was laughing at them. Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself. Sorry I can’t walk out of here when you walk out. But that’s all.”
Page 290
When such senseless murders occur, they are seen to be an end result of a period of increasing tension and disorganization in the murderer starting before the contact with the victim who, by fitting into the unconscious conflicts of the murderer, unwittingly serves to set into motion his homicidal potential.”
Page 301
“But it is Dr. Satten’s contention that only the first murder matters psychologically, and that when Smith attacked Mr. Clutter he was under a mental eclipse, deep inside a schizophrenic darkness, for it was not entirely a flesh-and-blood man he “suddenly discovered” himself destroying, but “a key figure in some past traumatic configuration”: his father? the orphanage nuns who had derided and beaten him? the hated Army sergeant? the parole officer who had ordered him to “stay out of Kansas”? One of them, or all of them.”
Page 302
“It is a relic of human barbarism. The law tells us that the taking of human life is wrong, then goes ahead and sets the example. Which is almost as wicked as the crime it punished. The state has no right to inflict it. It isn’t effective. It doesn’t deter crime, but merely cheapens human life and gives rise to more murders. All we ask is mercy. Surely life imprisonment is small mercy to ask.…”
Page 303
“In Exodus Twenty, Verse Thirteen, we have one of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This refers to unlawful killing. Of course it does, because in the next chapter, Verse Twelve, the penalty for disobedience of that Commandment reads: ‘He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.’”
Page 304
“The bad part was saying goodbye. When you knew where he was going, and what would happen to him. That squirrel of his, he sure misses Perry. Keeps coming to the cell looking for him. I’ve tried to feed him, but he won’t have anything to do with me. It was just Perry he liked.”
Page 308
“The question is this—do poor, plainly guilty defendants have a right to a complete defense? I do not believe that the State of Kansas would be either greatly or for long harmed by the death of these appellants. But I do not believe it could ever recover from the death of due process.”
Page 326
“But for someone his age he was the smartest person I ever come across. A human library. When that boy read a book it stayed read.”
Page 333
“They don’t feel nothing. Drop, snap, and that’s it. They don’t feel nothing.” “Are you sure? I was standing right close. I could hear him gasping for breath.” “Uh-huh, but he don’t feel nothing. Wouldn’t be humane if he did.” “Well. And I suppose they feed them a lot of pills. Sedatives.” “Hell, no. Against the rules.“
Page 340