In True Blood is another dark read, distinctly American and impressively literary. It is a text that manipulates genre, attempting to fuse a journalistic style with a free indirect discourse when presenting the perceptions of criminals. At its heart we meet our worst fears of cold reality – that people free from the bounds of society and even the regulation of basic norms can commit heinous acts.
The book plays with our ideas of seeing the murderers as entirely evil, posing the question that to understand somebody (or something) is to somehow entirely excuse them. As a teacher, I am remarkably apolitical and openly centrist (or at least centre-right) in my politics and responsibilities. I am aware that to claim to understand the motivations and narrative of minority political groups is a dangerous action. But that is what my vocation requires me to do. Despite claims that Capote sympathised with Smith when writing the text, such an understanding does not fudge the horror it portrays.
An interesting sidenote is that the book draws moral lines between financial crime (writing bad cheques), the act of breaking and entering (something I suffered when younger), the perversion of sexual assault and the desperate evil of murder. Of course, to many people, all crime is reprehensible. But in reality, to criminals, there is a very clear sliding scale of morality, a scale that we are invited to entertain if not accept.
A distinct distance is maintained in the voice. The difference between the sister’s letter and the free indirect narration is distinct, allowing us to appreciate the lyricism of Capote’s voice.
The text is not perfect. There is some tedium of pacing initially when we are presented with the Clutters knowing they will be murdered. Conventional narrative conflict does not exist. Yet knowing the ending before it starts allows Capote to play with the narrative structure. Traditional detective fiction begins with the violence before moving onto its why. In Cold Blood, in comparison, takes its time building a picture of the Clutter family that would serve well in a text across other genres. Ultimately, knowing the murders happen before the text starts makes the description painful intimate and even more devastating.
One aspect respectfully, but frustratingly, truncated was the mental illness suffered by Clutter’s wife, Bonnie. That her mental/emotional suffering was suspected to have a physical manifestation resonates with the psychologist’s reports at the end in court – there is a danger of thinking rationally yet without emotion.
This then raises questions as to whether head injuries and childhood abuse make criminal behaviour more likely. And, if they do, whether that should affect our judgement of crimes committed when suffering them. Aside from detailing the psychoanalytical reports read in court, Capote encourages no real sympathy for these men. There is no real depth or even an accurate perception sensed from them. The detached manner is one thing: what Flaubert does in his novelistic style is to present a sense of perception, of how, for example, Perry might have experienced things in prison or elsewhere.
Upon finishing the book, I searched for all the pictures of the case I could, considering the case and its relation to the public psyche. It seems that it was the closeness of the murders to our (conventionally safer) rural communities. Such communities are cohesive in that outsiders are not welcome. And this raises particularly difficult questions for a 2019 reader. How should we perceive transient people? As an international teacher, my presence is almost entirely transient. In American literature, transience and travel is usually presented as an almost spiritual existence, most notably in Steinbeck’s portrayal of itinerant workers. Capote’s transient workers are presented here as entirely petty, driven by dangerous envy and furious desire, and as ultimately destabilising to existing communities in America.
America is a violent country – there is no escaping that fact. It is a country born of a particular wildness with an appreciable demographic who pride on their capacity for violence in the name of protection and justice. It is this particularly American context that we then must consider questions about responsibility, crime and capital punishment. To teach this book is to raise questions about some of the ultimate crimes, of whether we might seek to understand them, and the extent to which we should bring them into our classrooms.