In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood | Capote's In Cold Blood: The Search for Meaningful Design

In the following essay, Hollowell examines three critical scenes in In Cold Blood to see how Capote ''strategically offers an explanatory framework for understanding murder.''

In early studies of the new journalism and the nonfiction novel, critics have sought to identify the fictional techniques that make the nonfiction novel "read" like a novel. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe speaks of the realistic novel's ‘‘emotional involvement,’’ or its "gripping" and "absorbing" quality. Perhaps the most often cited of these devices of realism, according to Wolfe, is ‘‘scene by scene reconstruction and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narration.’’ The supposed effect on the reader is a reconstruction of events with full dialogue and psychological depth, without the anonymous summary or narration of traditional journalism.

More recent readers of Capote's In Cold Blood have discussed the degree of closure and resolution such scenes achieve with respect to reading the overall meaning of the Clutter murders. Brian Conniff, for example, examines the crucial role of what he calls psychological accidents in the recreation of the crimes and Capote's overall narrative plan, while Phyllis Frus adopts the opposing view that Capote's method allows for the murders to be explained and rationalized within a framework of middle-class ideology and psychological analysis. I want to explore the category of ‘‘meaningful design,’’ apparently drawn from Detective Dewey's verbal world, since it strategically offers an explanatory framework for understanding murder. In fact, the careful construction of the confession, trial, and execution scenes refers to this standard, one that promises to resolve vexing questions for readers of In Cold Blood. Capote's strategy, however, is to raise the possibility of rational order without ever fully endorsing it, often revealing that random and accidental events shape the history of the crime. Capote's narrative method also emphasizes two language systems—the first based on punishment, the second on psychological analysis of personality— that demonstrate opposing ways of judging human behavior. This conflict undermines any straightforward rational design for comprehending murder or its punishment. To evaluate these issues of closure and meaning in In Cold Blood, I examine three critical scenes in detail—the confessions of the killers, the courtroom verdicts, and the executions—to provide the best opportunity to identify a totalized, clear sense of an ending.

Until Part 3 of the book, "Answer," Capote's method emphasizes the mysterious, evasive nature of the crimes and their effects on the townsfolk of Holcomb, Kansas. The three scenes I have selected are presented through the eyes of Alvin Dewey, the law-and-order hero of the book. Since Capote's narrative method does not allow the author to speak in his own, first-person voice, Dewey acts as the central intelligence guiding our integration of plot elements. The reader is likely to identify with Dewey's viewpoint as she identifies with Dewey's search for design, since it will presumably create an explanatory framework that will allow her to understand the bizarre murders. These three scenes provide a basis for reading the murders, for placing them within a coherent design for In Cold Blood as a whole. The narrative promises to create an understanding of the crimes and get to the bottom of the killers' motives—if not through the legal system, then perhaps through the process of psychological analysis. Dewey's role is critical, since his motives and desires allow readers to identify with the eventual capture and punishment of the suspects.

The confession scene develops in "Answer" when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are arrested in Las Vegas as their cross-country ride comes to an end; Capote signals the arrival of a dramatic climax in which we may find out "what really happened.'' It is useful to study the staging words and interviews in some depth, both for the portrait of Dewey's actions, and for our understanding of the motivation and possible logic behind the crimes. First, recall that Capote's narrative strategy left the black Chevrolet frozen in moonlight in the Clutter driveway on the night of the murders, but the murders have never been described ‘‘in real time.’’ Second, the confession scene promises to release pent-up curiosity about the crimes, which up to this point have been presented as motiveless and inexplicable. Our anticipation takes its cue from Dewey's solemn vow when first encountering the murder scene: "However long it takes, it may be the rest of my life, I'm going to know what happened in that house: the why and the who.’’

Dewey's thoughts about the case suggest a rational framework for understanding murder—a meaningful design. The possibility of this design comes from the general human need for meaning and the specific need for closure, to put an ending to a series of plausible, yet always puzzling, explanations. Second, Capote's strategy raises the possibility of design and meaning by strengthening the reader's identification with Detective Dewey, who dominates every phase of the case. What I propose is to examine the confession, the trial, and the execution scenes against the standard of meaning Dewey envisions. Capote's treatment of this complex standard of resolution is linked to any interpretation of In Cold Blood and its overall aesthetic effects.

One test to apply to the confession and the trial scenes is the extent to which rational explanation— the why and the who—appears in the final revelation of the crimes in "Answer." On December 30, 1959, after more than six weeks of cluelessness and frustration, Dewey learns of Hickock and Smith's arrest in Las Vegas. While this should be an occasion for joy in the Dewey family, Alvin remains pessimistic that the case will finally be solved since the physical evidence is slim: ‘‘Yes, a big lot of good they [photographs of bloody footprints] are...unless those boys still happen to be wearing those boots that made them.’’ Reflecting on the flimsy evidence as he dresses for a quick departure for Las Vegas with his three Kansas Bureau of Investigation partners, Dewey tells his wife the only interviewing strategy he can think of: ‘‘the name Clutter has to hit them like a hammer, a blow they never knew was coming.’’ Such a statement anticipates a fierce struggle between law enforcement and criminals who had hoped to leave no clues behind.

Capote allows the why of the crimes to play itself out slowly, since at first the two suspects are allowed to believe they have been arrested for minor violations of parole and hot check writing. In Capote's chosen order, Hickock is the first to be interrogated by agents Church and Nye. After pursuing the checkwriting incidents in Kansas City, Church mentions the weekend of November 14-15, while Hickock rambles on with a prepared false alibi about traveling to Fort Scott to see Smith's sister and picking up two prostitutes. By allowing Hickock to exhibit ‘‘his one true gift’’ of recollection, the detectives let him go on to name all the roads, hotels, and highways from Kansas to Florida, and back through Texas to Nevada. Nye then zeroes in on him: ‘‘I guess you realize we wouldn't have come all the way to Nevada to chat with a couple of twobit check chiselers.’’ Capote cites the detectives' contemporaneous notes of the moment when Nye mentions the name "Clutter": "Suspect underwent an intense visible reaction. He turned gray.’’ The two detectives then deliver a blow intended to shatter Hickock's alibi:

But you made two mistakes, Dick. One was, you left a witness. A living witness. Who'll testify in court. Who'll stand in the witness box and tell a jury how Richard Hickock and Perry Smith bound and gagged and slaughtered four helpless people.

While he is visibly rattled, Hickock still denies any knowledge of the murders. Detectives Nye and Church decide to cut off the interview, allowing him to brood over his guilt and a possible death sentence. Capote's interest lies in the methods of trapping suspects and forcing a confession. His goal is to dramatize the pressure applied by the detectives and Dick's wavering motives for confessing or withholding information.

When first confronted with the idea of a witness, Hickock thinks of an eyewitness—someone who actually saw the crime—and he soon remembers his old cellmate, Floyd Wells, but dismisses any danger figuring that "the sonofab— was probably expecting some fancy reward.’’ Detectives finally break down Dick's protestations of innocence, however, by showing him large ‘‘one to one’’ blowup photographs of the bloody footprints from the murder scene, and he quickly realizes that Smith is the one witness who could damage him the most: "It was Perry he ought to have silenced. On a mountain road in Mexico. Or while walking across the Mojave.'' When Hickock contemplates the photographs of the crime scene and considers their use in court, he blurts out: '‘Perry Smith killed the Clutters...It was Perry. I couldn't stop him. He killed them all.’’ The interrogation of Hickock reflects his desire to hold out in the face of his fear of Smith and the physical evidence. He attempts to exculpate himself by declaring that he did not actually kill any member of the family. Capote shows Hickock's thinking as he falls back on the claim that he did not actually pull the trigger, and therefore should not be charged with first-degree murder.

Capote soon switches the interrogation to Smith, since his version of events promises to answer Dewey' s questions about motive. Following a similar reconstructive method throughout, Capote develops Smith's testimony more completely than Hickock's, reporting in the present tense to intensify the immediacy. After more than three hours of questioning, Agent Duntz tells Smith that on November 14, "You were killing the Clutter family'', but Smith stubbornly sticks to the cover story about Fort Scott and the prostitutes. Finally, Dewey decides to cut the interview off, leaving Smith with the guilt-inducing knowledge that the next day would have been Nancy Clutter's birthday: '‘She would have been seventeen.’’

In portraying Smith in this section, Capote uses the most controversial technique of the nonfiction novel. Instead of quoting directly or using typical journalistic attribution, he adopts a point of view coming from inside the suspect's mind. While it seems as if an omniscient author has access to his private thoughts, everything Smith "thinks" came from extensive interviews Capote conducted much later on Death Row. Here Smith worries about Hickock's ability to hold out against sharp interrogation.

...well, he damn near died, that's all. He must have lost ten pounds in two seconds. Thank God he hadn't let them see it. Or hoped he hadn't. And Dick? Presumably they'd pulled the same stunt on him. Dick was smart, a convincing performer, but his "guts" were unreliable, he panicked too easily. Even so, and however much they pressured him, Perry was sure that Dick would hold out.

While Smith avoids confessing in Las Vegas, he finally breaks down and tells the ‘‘whole story’’ during his transport back to Kansas. Dewey inadvertently tells Smith that Hickock has spoken of "King," a black man whom Smith supposedly whipped to death in a false story he made up to impress Hickock. At first, Smith cannot believe Hickock has confessed to any involvement in the Clutter case: '‘I thought it was a stunt. I didn't believe you. That Dick let fly. The tough boy!''. But the revelation about the King story becomes a critical signal, because if Hickock ever confessed, '‘dropped his guts all over the g—dd—n floor—I knew he'd tell about the nigger.''

This revelation launches Smith's narration into the events on the night of the murders. Dewey is attentive, having sworn to himself long ago to learn every detail of the murders, hoping for a coherent story to resolve his doubts and earlier confusion. Since the outset of the long investigation of the senseless murders, the reader follows Dewey's reactions with hope that the dramatic highlights of the book will occur in this scene. As Dewey performs the repellent act of lighting cigarettes for the handcuffed Smith, the two factors that dominate the story of the night of the murders are the bickering and macho posturing of the two men, and the obvious fact that Mr. Clutter kept no safe at his house.

Far from being a portrayal of two homicidal maniacs on a rampage, what is striking about Smith's narrative are odd moments of quiet, moments of hesitation when the whole scheme might have been ended without anyone dying. In the driveway, both men swig from a bottle of whiskey; Hickock says, 'I'll show you who's got guts,'' as the two muster courage for tying and gagging each member of the family, the women upstairs and Kenyon and Mr. Clutter in the basement. When it becomes apparent that there is no office safe, and Smith understands that the "big score'' is a bust, he reports wanting just to leave the house: '‘Why don't I walk off? Walk to the highway, hitch a ride. I sure Jesus did not want to go back in that house.'' But there is an odd magnet, according to Smith, almost as if he is watching someone other than himself: "It was like I wasn't part of it. More as though I was reading a story. And I had to know what was going to happen. The end.'' Seeing himself in the role of spectator is a bizarre feature of Smith's narration, implying that he is watching some other person commit the crimes.

This curious dissociation of thoughts and emotions from actions permeates much of Smith's account of the night of November 14. Later, in the psychiatric analysis, it will be presented as a case of Smith's ‘‘magical thinking,’’ his uncanny ability to separate and distance himself from events and action, as if he were watching a movie in which he was a character. Early on, Perry talks of shaking down Nancy Clutter's room and the shame of searching for her souvenir silver dollar: ‘‘ rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick...Dick, and all his talk about a rich man's safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child's silver dollar.’’ Again, Capote's report of Smith's confession emphasizes the feeling of being ‘‘outside himself,’’ as if he were watching some "movie." Capote dwells on the silver dollar incident because Smith himself understands it as a symbol of the absurdity of the theft, a shameful reminder of pointless torture and murder.

Despite the high points of action in Smith's story—the killing of Mr. Clutter, the rapid shotgun blasts—the length of time in the house with strange moments of quiet lead us to a discomfiting series of what ifs. Readers are cued to wait for a design that will explain the motive for the murders. For example, Smith tells of ordering Hickock to leave Nancy's room for '‘that's something I despise. Anybody that can't control themselves sexually.’’ Yet when Dick leaves the room, Perry has a surreal yet quite "normal" conversation with a girl who fears for her life:

She was trying hard to act casual and friendly. I really liked her. She was really nice. A very pretty girl, and not spoiled or anything. She told me quite a lot about herself. About school, and how she was going to go to a university and study music and art. Horses. Said next to dancing what she liked best was to gallop a horse, so I mentioned my mother had been a champion rodeo rider.

This is an odd conversation, for here is a nice girl that Perry's criminal life has never allowed him to meet and, ironically, he is able to have a friendly chat about horses in the moments just before killing her at point-blank range. Readers may have difficulty resolving such a moment with the rapid series of shotgun blasts, and the sudden flash of anger that remains uncanny.

After telling of several such moments of pause and quiet, Smith mentions the final strategy session between the two men just before the killing of Mr. Clutter, the first in the chain reaction of killing. With the lights out and the family taped and bound, Smith presents this huddle as a prelude to the actual murders:

‘Dick and I went off in a corner. To talk it over. Remember, now, there were hard feelings between us. Just then it made my stomach turn to think I had ever admired him...I said, 'Well Dick. Any qualms?' He didn't answer me. I said, 'Leave them alive, and this won'tbe any small rap. Ten years the very least.'...I asked him for [the knife], and he gave it to me, and I said, 'All right, Dick. Here goes.' But I didn't mean it. I meant to call his bluff.

Shortly after this point, Smith tells of Mr. Clutter struggling ‘‘half out of his ropes’’ and making a gurgling sound "like somebody drowning,’’ while Smith dares Hickock to finish killing him. In Smith's version, he takes the knife from Hickock and then uses the shotgun to kill Mr. Clutter to end his suffering:

‘‘Dick wanted to get the hell out of there. But I wouldn't let him go. The man would have died anyway, I know that, but I couldn't leave him like he was. I told Dick to hold the flashlight, focus it. Then I aimed the gun. The room just exploded. Went blue. Just blazed up.’’

As Smith finishes his story, Agent Dewey's ears ‘‘ring with it,’’ and he knows that he has wanted these details all along since this case had begun to dominate his life. Every event of the confessions—all the terrors of the victims, every shotgun blast—has been presented. Yet has the story actually fulfilled the design Dewey so desires? Does the scene as reported reveal the true answer of "the why and the who'' that Dewey sought? Recall that from the early scattering of disconnected clues, Dewey formulated two "concepts," one involving a single killer and another involving two or more men. These two scenarios demonstrate how even Dewey's crimesolving skills could not anticipate or comprehend what these particular killers were capable of. Because of the amount of taping and tying the family suffered, Dewey favored the "double-killer concept,'' but earlier he found it unbelievable that ‘‘'two individuals could reach the same degree of rage, the kind of psychopathic rage it took to commit such a crime.''' Even if someone had an insane rage against Herb Clutter, '‘‘where did he find a partner, someone crazy enough to help him? It doesn't add up. It doesn't make sense.'’’ And yet, as he learns from Smith, this scenario is close to what happened.

Does Smith's confession add up to a story that makes sense now? Within this matrix of common sense and reason, Dewey does not feel satisfied with the answers. Even though all the details have been revealed, the murders remain outside an explanatory or rational viewpoint based on the human need for order that dominates Capote's approach. Capote shapes In Cold Blood to present the possibility of a rational view of murder, and yet systematically denies or withdraws it. The narrative dwells on Dewey's sense of dissatisfaction, even after hearing every detail: ‘‘But the confessions, though they answered the questions of how and why, failed to satisfy [Dewey's] sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning.’’

Reviewing these moments of terror in the account Smith gives Dewey, we find a consistent failure to arrive at the ‘‘sense of meaningful design’’ Dewey is seeking. Each of the constituent elements leading to the moment of the crime is present: the failure to find a safe, the two men's anger toward each other, Smith's sense of shame, Hickock's embarrassment at not bring off ‘‘the perfect score,’’ the final thought that more prison time will surely await them if they leave witnesses and get caught. Each of these factors plays a role in the murders, yet no single motive in itself makes the killing necessary or inevitable. If any one of these elements had been missing, the murders might have been avoided; therefore, even by the end of the story things do not ‘‘add up’’ or ‘‘make sense.’’

As Brian Conniff has persuasively argued, the case would be too simple and indeed Capote's narrative would be too determined and obvious, like Dewey's two concepts, ‘‘if it were not for the intervention of certain 'accidents.'’’ Conniff goes on to show how Capote blurs the usual distinctions between good and evil. It is not excellent police work that solves the case but a ‘‘stroke of luck’’ when the convict, Floyd Wells, names Hickock. Dewey is lucky, too, that the killers are so foolish: returning to their favorite hotels and continuing to pass bad checks, Smith and Hickock have just about guaranteed their own arrest outside a Las Vegas post office...[Capote's method] provides the kind of juxtapositions that make the murderers' simple incompetence all the more glaring, in contrast to the elaborate suspicions and theories fostered by the "normal" community...Perhaps it was only such events, combined with the trial and execution that would follow—in which "good" would stubbornly refuse to triumph over "evil," in which "sanity" would strangely refuse to explain and cure ‘‘insanity"—that could have forced [Capote] to question his initial design [for the book].

Such commentary sheds light on what happens in the confession scene, because all the details make clear that the mystery does not follow the classic means of solving a murder—looking for motive and opportunity, nor does it adhere to the logic of Dewey's two prior concepts. In fact, rejecting the formula resolution of most crime stories, Capote endorses no clear-cut motive or reason for the murders. Crimes of premeditation can be understood, and even crimes of passion may be comprehensible in psychological terms. As in the classic literature of American crime—in Dreiser's An American Tragedy, for example, when Clyde Griffiths' pregnant fiancée drowns when the two of them are out rowing—events seem to happen without premeditation and beyond the conscious control of human agents.

Capote's narrator apparently offers us a false certainty when he says, ‘‘the confessions...answered questions of how and why'', since a careful reader will seriously wonder if they do. A radical feature of Capote's book, one that has troubled many critics, is that the narrator never offers easy answers or a ready-made ethical framework for "understanding" the murders. Hence, readers must confront the acts of terror and violence outside the framework of rational organization, while appreciating Garden City's long-awaited return to stability, now that the perpetrators of the murders have been duly captured and jailed. As Capote sets up the equation, the dramatic work of the confessions helps establish the ground for another important scene, the trial in Garden City that once again promises to get to the bottom of the Clutter murders.

If the confession scene does not fully satisfy the desire for "meaningful design,'' perhaps the trial of Hickock and Smith will provide the fuller explanation of the events that resist Dewey's sense of reason. Recent perspectives on language indicate that humans construct "reality" and "truth" from the vantage point of metaphorical and language systems that control our view of the world. In the courtroom drama, for example, Capote manages to promote conflict by establishing two interpretations of the events—the first legal and restrictive, the second psychological—drawing arguments first from acts and then from a careful study of the killers' possible motivations. Both systems of language— the legal and the psychological—offer competing ways of reconstructing the past from different perspectives. The legal language focuses on action, responsibility, and laws of evidence—to determine whether the acts of murder were committed by these men. The psychological language provides psychiatric "testimony'' to explore the unconscious motives for such "motiveless’’ crimes; the psychological testimony concerns personality structure and the formative events of childhood. Embedded in the psychiatric language is a definition of sanity that implicitly challenges the legal definition at the trial, by which Kansas law reduces matters to a simple yes-or-no answer.

At first glance, the outcome of the trial appears foregone: the physical evidence, the bloody photographs, the testimony of Floyd Wells, the careful reconstruction of the crime by Alvin Dewey, and the signed confessions all point to the guilt that will allow the community to restore its sense of order, and quiet its fear by exacting guilty verdicts and the death penalty. The legal system, with its established rules of evidence, restricts what information can be presented to a jury. Crucial in this case is the M'Naghten rule, a British legal precedent stating that "if the accused knew the nature of his act, and knew it was wrong, then he is mentally competent.'' Further, as prosecutor Logan Green makes clear, specialized psychiatric testimony is not required since the determination of any family doctor will suffice: '‘Medical doctors in general practice. That's all the law requires. We have sanity hearings in this county every year.’’ This ruling restricts the ground for arguments and limits the jury's view of all potential evidence.

A more distant underpinning of the legal system is the biblical view of crime and punishment, placing the prosecutors in the role of vengeful Old Testament prophets, invoking the lex talonis. Prosecutor Green effectively uses a "reading'' of biblical passages in his summation to call for the deaths of Hickock and Smith:

But I anticipated that defense counsel would use the Holy Bible as an argument against the death penalty. You heard the Bible quoted. But I can read too...and here are a few things that the Good Book has to say on the subject. In Exodus Twenty, Verse Thirteen, we have one of the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not kill'...[and] in the next chapter, Verse Twelve, the penalty for disobedience [is]...'He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.'

While the courtroom presentation of evidence focuses on the simple knowledge of right and wrong, Capote undermines the reading of the verdicts by presenting viewpoints of those unsympathetic to the court proceedings. For example, Dick Hickock's father remarks: "That judge up there! I never seen a man so prejudiced. Just no sense having a trial.’’ The author also quotes two journalists, who comment on the "coldblooded" nature of the death penalty. As Capote often stated in interviews, the context and position of quotations help to organize the reader's sense of a scene more effectively than would authorial intrusion. Capote's quotations from the journalists show that "In Cold Blood'' applies first to the killers and then to the state.

While the trial scene is limited by restrictions of the M'Naghten rule to assess sanity, Capote's approach stresses the psychiatric examinations that were inadmissible in court. Since Capote's narrator is unfettered by any legal rulings, he relates the complex theory of Dr. W. Mitchell Jones by stating, "had Dr. Jones been allowed to speak further, here is what he would have said.’’ Jones' assessment of Dick Hickock focuses on his athletic ability and previous good health before a severe auto accident produced '"blackout spells, periods of amnesia and headaches.’’ He concludes that Hickock's personality has "typical characteristics of what psychiatrically would be called a severe character disorder,’’' and he would have urged the court to order physical examinations to rule out the possibility of "organic brain damage.'' As usual, Capote's lengthier and more penetrating presentation is devoted to psychological evidence concerning Perry Smith's early traumas and his violently explosive behavior.

Dr. Jones finds ‘‘two features in [Smith's] personality make-up stand out as particularly pathological." The first is a paranoid orientation toward social interactions: "He is suspicious and distrustful of others, tends to feel others...are unfair to him and do not understand him.’’ Related to this trait, he is ‘‘sensitive to criticism’’ and ‘‘cannot tolerate being made fun of." The second trait, related directly to the Clutter murders, concerns

rages, which he says 'mount up' in him, and...the poor control he has over them. When turned toward himself the anger has precipitated ideas of suicide...[and, at times]... his thinking [is]... lost in detail, and some of his thinking reflects a 'magical' quality, a disregard of reality.

In addition to Dr. Jones' conclusions, Capote quotes extensively from a 1960 paper by Dr. Joseph Satten and his three colleagues, ‘‘Murder without Apparent Motive—A Study in Personality Disorganization.’’ Studying the Clutter case, Dr. Satten finds that Smith's behavior conforms to a pattern of murders he had studied where the murderers suffered from ‘‘severe lapses in ego control,’’ leading to ''the open expression of primitive violence, born out of previous, and now unconscious, traumatic experiences.’’ For more than ten pages, Capote presents the behavior pattern of such murderers who, on the surface, '‘seem rational, coherent, and controlled’’ but whose crimes ‘‘have a bizarre, apparently senseless quality.’’

At the heart of Dr. Satten's theory is the idea of unconscious motivation, that a present action is determined by the repetition of some earlier, unresolved state of mental imbalance. The murderer in effect finds in the current situation a configuration that provokes a reenactment of old wrongs:

Such individuals can be considered murder-prone in the sense of carrying a surcharge of aggressive energy or having an unstable ego defense system that periodically allows the naked and archaic expression of such energy. The murderous potential can become activated, especially if some disequilibrium is already present, when the victim-to-be is unconsciously perceived as a key figure in some past traumatic configuration.

Such parallels reinforce the viewpoint that Dr. Satten "feels secure in assigning [Smith] to 'their ranks.'’’ The proposed theory suggests that Mr. Clutter ‘‘was not entirely a flesh-and-blood man [that Smith] 'suddenly discovered' himself destroying,’’ but the cumulative ghost of his father, his despised Army sergeant, the nuns who beat him, and thus all the hated authority figures from his past.

After an extended presentation of these theories, Capote examines Smith's own words, heard earlier both in the confession scene and during a meeting with Don Cullivan, his old Army buddy. In that meeting Smith describes the killing of Mr. Clutter in almost exactly the same words as in the confession scene:

I was sore at Dick.. .But it wasn't Dick. Or the fear of being identified ... And it wasn't because of anything that the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.

Capote's narrative voice concludes neutrally by showing the apparent harmony of two viewpoints, reporting that, ‘‘It would appear that by independent paths, both the professional and the amateur analyst reached conclusions not dissimilar.’’ Capote's narrator does not interpret these conclusions, but the length of time devoted to them clearly undercuts the straightforward clarity of courtroom justice.

Yet how does the psychiatric testimony work? Although it does not change anything about the laws operating in Kansas in 1960, it questions the fairness of death-penalty verdicts endorsed by the community. Readers must wonder: if Smith underwent a ‘‘brain explosion’’ at the time of murdering Mr. Clutter, how could he be held responsible? It may seem to be a clear case of temporary insanity. Capote's inherent plea for mercy, however, must later be subjected to cold-blooded facts of the murders of Herbert, Kenyon, Nancy, and Mrs. Clutter. It is clear that they are just as dead whether they were killed by Smith in an agitated state, or because he was intent on leaving no witnesses to the crime— a motive for the murders reinforced throughout ‘‘The Last to See Them Alive.’’ The weight of the psychiatric testimony does not suggest that Smith and Hickock are not guilty, but it hints that leniency or perhaps life imprisonment without parole would be a more suitable punishment, although Capote never overtly makes this argument.


The last of the trio of scenes examining the framework of a meaningful design is the execution of Hickock and Smith, depicting events at the Kansas State Penitentiary on April 14, 1965, after five years of legal appeals. As preparation for the events to come, Capote depicts the execution of Lowell Lee Andrews, a Death-Row friend of Hickock and Smith. According to Capote's narrative voice, Smith is allowed to speak a condemned man's customary last words: ‘‘'I don't believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something—.'’’ While journalist Philip Tompkins quotes others close to the scene who stated that these words were not spoken, Capote depicts Smith as both penitent and critical of the state. In interviews after the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote echoed Smith's own sense of his potential for some future contribution:

He wanted very deeply to paint and write and he also had genuine talent as a musician. He had a natural ear and could play five or six instruments; the guitar, in particular, he played extremely well. But one of the things he used to tell me over and over again was what a tragedy that...[no one] encouraged him in any single creative thing he wanted to do.

Yet when Hickock finally dies at 12:41 A.M., and Smith follows at 1:19 A.M., Capote's narrator again turns to Alvin Dewey, the same moral barometer consulted in each phase of the case. Based on comments Dewey no doubt made to Capote, Hickock remains as always ''a small-time chiseler who got out of his depth’’, and yet in death Smith possesses the "aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded.'' This last description echoes the book's earlier references to Smith's childhood and his wounded adulthood, seen through sympathetic observers like Don Cullivan, Mrs. Josie Meier in Garden City, and his prison friend Willie Jay.

The closing scene of this nonfiction novel is not the executions proper, since they, once again, fail to provide Alvin Dewey with ‘‘a sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed.’’ Capote's language suggests Aristotle's analysis of catharsis in tragedy, in which terror and pity are released in the audience by the appropriate completion of an action at the play's end. In the Clutter case, however, the accidents of a "brain explosion'' and the Clutters' accidental presence as victims, as well as Capote's emphasis on the long legal delays, all block the proper purging of the expected emotions at the completion of a well-made plot. Instead, Capote singles out Dewey's memory of a graveside meeting at River Valley Cemetery "a year earlier,’’ a chance encounter with Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter's girlhood friend who had gone on to the university to study:

Everything. Art, mostly. I love it...Nancy and I planned to go to college together. We were going to be roommates. I think about it sometimes. Suddenly, when I'm very happy, I think of all the plans we made.

After a brief discussion of Nancy's former boyfriend's marriage, and of her own plans, Dewey acknowledges ‘‘a pretty girl in a hurry’’ and he privately thinks she is "just such a young woman as Nancy might have been.’’ The scene nostalgically closes with a sense of place that recalls Capote's The Grass Harp, when Collin Fenwick is reunited with Judge Cool. Here Dewey is walking home ‘‘leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.’’ At first this scene seems a fitting way to end, something out of the world of fiction. Yet it also presents a cliché in response to death, asserting the old truism that "life goes on’’ while survivors must resolve their own searches for meaning.

This ending's strong sense of closure has seemed to certain critics to be tacked-on artificially. Apparently, Capote did not want to end on the downbeat note of the executions, which were very troubling to him after five years of close contact with the killers. Gerald Clarke's biography asserts that Capote invented this graveside scene. In Cold Blood's ‘‘one act of pure fiction,'' was revealed as such a decade after the book's publication in a letter from Sue Kidwell's mother and Alvin Dewey. This is a serious blemish on the otherwise factually accurate narrative; as Clarke notes, ‘‘since events had not provided him with a happy scene, he was forced to make one up.’’ Despite this problem of accuracy, does Capote's concluding fiction really imply that the world is restored to order, that a rational structure has been superimposed on the baffling events? Or does the scene function as a kind of musical coda that extends or modifies the formal ending as in a symphonic movement?

In closing this discussion, I want to return once again to the standard of meaningful design to assess its influence on our final interpretation of In Cold Blood. Despite the sense of closure Capote's invented ending implies, the book does not really resolve the conflicted meanings of the crimes or bring them within a larger framework that is rationalized, totalized, and complete. A strong reading of this sort is proposed by Phyllis Frus in her recent comparison of In Cold Blood with Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. She argue that Capote's novel reinforces standard class ideology by achieving a defined sense of resolution:

The narrative of In Cold Blood implies that truth is, if not simple, at least ascertainable, if we are willing to take the trouble; and that sociologists and psychiatrists have the answers to the riddle of criminal behavior. Furthermore, the reader implied by the structure of the novel learns that violent, senseless crime can be made sensible and poignant through artistic representation; and that these repulsive, illiterate, antisocial criminals are rendered as literate, talented, redeemable...In Cold Blood...assumes a world of cause and effect, of certitude, reason—in short, of common sense, and it expresses this world view via a realism characterized by verisimilitude, a historical narrator who assures the intelligibility of the text by "placing'' the other narrations, and through its strong sense of closure.

While this reading of closure and certainty of In Cold Blood raises many interesting problems, it is ultimately reductive and mistaken in terms of Capote's complex narrative strategies. Although Dewey's category of ‘‘meaningful design’’ is three times raised by the narrator as a possible standard for resolution, nowhere is it accepted or fully endorsed. Furthermore, while the psychiatric testimony is "placed'' in an important position in "The Corner,’’ it is never accepted as the final answer to the "riddle of criminal behavior''; in fact, it is only one part of the explanatory apparatus of the narration, since the law and legal proceedings have their due, along with the desire for retribution of the people of Holcomb. I would argue that Capote's structure places the reader in a complex intersection of the law, the impulse for compassion, and the knowledge of psychiatry without fully endorsing a single, stable viewpoint naturalized by ‘‘common sense'' or reason.

Chris Anderson explains that the mystery of murder in In Cold Blood is presented through what he calls a ‘‘rhetoric of silence.’’ In effect, Capote's reluctance to impose meaning produces an uncertain ending, one that reproduces our uncertainty when ‘‘the imagination fails to comprehend the quality and degree of suffering the Clutters endured. '' In fact, the moment of cutting Mr. Clutter's throat is portrayed as silent and inexplicable because "in the end things just happened; at the key moment there is a blank.’’ It is this blank—a moment that resists reduction to language—which the whole trial scene and Smith's confessional account do not domesticate or tame by reason. The events at the center of the murders, despite the full psychological backgrounds and the lengthy confessional statements, produce a reverberation of many texts resounding, while the narrator of In Cold Blood declines to single-out any explanatory framework as superior or definitive.

With respect to the psychiatric testimony, despite its strong placement, the reader realizes in a way that Frus seems not to accept that psychiatric knowledge will not clear away the mystery of the case. Such thinking is a kind of trap, for, as Alan Dershowitz has recently pointed out in The Abuse Excuse, what murderer could not claim an abused childhood or environmental pre-conditions for murder? At the closing of In Cold Blood, Capote positions the reader within a competition of explanatory and rational texts without endorsing any of them and without reducing the mysteries of the case to common wisdom.

What Anderson calls "the rhetoric of silence'' implies a narrator who places us in the midst of these explanatory systems, leaving a troubling series of thoughts but never leading to any easy resolution. Are these men guilty? Certainly, on the basis of the evidence at trial, most would say "yes.'' Are they insane? According to the M'Naghten rule they are sane, yet the psychiatric testimony makes childhood abuse and possible brain damage from motor accidents challenge this ruling. Should Smith's painting and studying of philosophy on Death Row be taken into account? Does journal-keeping indicate that Hickock and Smith are redeemable? "Yes,’’ some might say again. Yet Capote leaves readers with an unwieldy series of accidents, as Conniff points out, brought about by real events: the pairing of these two partners, the particular set of American values the Clutters seem to represent, the feelings that Smith experiences at the precise moment of being poised with a knife above Mr. Clutter's throat. What remains is an irreducible blank and a mystery at the center not unlike Kurtz's cry, "the horror, the horror'' in Heart of Darkness. None of this can easily be paraphrased.

Finally, do readers accept the town's need for revenge, supported by a biblical call for justice, or the chief detective's need to feel an appropriate set of emotions to achieve a personal closure? Even if they do, there are the dangers of accepting the potentially exculpatory evidence of psychiatry that might eventually lead to self-less agents lost in a world of post-Freudian determinism. In Cold Blood, despite its authorial omniscience and its apparent sense of closure, requires acceptance of no particular viewpoint without the simultaneous consideration of other powerful and contradictory explanations. At the end of an interview—published in the New York Times Book Review—Capote was asked if he personally had achieved a sense of closure with the case and he replied: ‘‘It's like the echo of E. M. Forster's Malabar Caves, the echo that's meaningless and yet it's there: one keeps hearing it all the time.’’ It is perhaps this memory of the vertigo beyond language that he hoped to reproduce for readers of In Cold Blood.

Source: John Hollowell, ‘‘Capote's In Cold Blood: The Search for Meaningful Design,’’ in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, Autumn 1997, pp. 97-115.

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“The Search for Meaningful Design”

ICB: Literary Criticism NAME_________________________________

  1. What is Hollowell’s main purpose or thesis?

  1. What evidence does he use to support his purpose?

  1. What is the meaning of the title and how does it apply to the novel In Cold Blood?

  1. Why is the essay broken up into three parts? What purpose does each section serve, or add, to the essay as a whole?

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