|Perry Smith and Richard Hicock, the murderers of the Clutter family.|
In Cold Blood (1966)
by Truman Capote
As a criminal defense lawyer, I live in a dark world, filled with other people's absolute worst moments. I also work alone. That means that the problems of other people that come to me stay at my desk. Most of my clients are deeply upset at whatever challenges they happen to be facing when I represent the. The ones that aren't bothered are the scariest. My job leaves me with little patience for the problems of people that aren't my clients. When I'm not working, the absolute last thing I want to do is listen to the problems of friend or loved ones. It's unfortunate, because listening to other people complain is something between a quarter to 100% of most friendships/family relationships/relationships.
This same emotional dynamic has driven me into the worlds of literature. I take deep solace in reading about the problems of imaginary people, and comparing their situation to the situations of my clients and murmuring to myself, "Well, things could be worse." There are other reasons I read, but I find reading a good novel to be more emotionally cathartic than trying to talk to a friend for thirty minutes about the issues which arise when I'm doing my job.
In Cold Blood hits very close to the mark of my working life. It is generally credited as the first "non fiction novel," and it concerns the murder of four family members in rural Kansas in 1959 by two recently paroled convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Hickock was a local, a fast talking con-man sort who was imprisoned for writing bad checks. Smith was a half-Native America, half-Irish drifter with a third grade education. While imprisoned at the Kansas State Pentitnenary, Hickock learned about Herbet Cuttler, a wealthy farmer who supposedly kept a wall safe with tens of thousands of dollars inside.
After he was released from prison, Hickock wrote the previously paroled Smith, and together they went to Cuttler's farm, where they failed to find the safe (which never existed) and murdered the four family members who were home in spectacularly brutal fashion. They got away with something less than 100 dollars and a few stolen items. Hickock and Smith were on the run for six weeks before they were arrested in Las Vegas Nevada. Shortly after they confessed, were extradited to Kansas, tried for the murder and executed.
First and foremost, In Cold Blood was a masterful work of craft, seamlessly blending the requirements of non-fiction with the aesthetic sensibility of fiction. This approach to writing has been widely disseminated in the decades since In Cold Blood was originally published, to the point where readers accept it as a major category of literature. Capote blends the perspectives of the perpetrators, investigators and towns people so smoothly that the reader is barely aware of the transitions back and forth.
At no point does Capote intrude on the action, disguising his own appearance in the narrative as an interviewer. His background work was incredibly thorough. What he did then would probably qualify as competent mitigation work for a client facing the death penalty in 2016. Capote develops the theme that both Hickock and Smith suffered head trauma that likely resulted in organic brain damage. He also uncovers the kind of traumatic child abuse in the past of Smith that is often used as mitigation in death penalty cases.
Unfortunately for the two murderers, Kansas was not sophisticated in the defense of death penalty cases, and the mitigation case on their behalf was somewhere between short and non existent. Capote did not abandon the two after the verdict, famously advocating on their behalf up and until the actual execution. I'd put even money on whether the two would be executed if they committed the same crime today. On the one hand, it's the kind of spectacular, senseless crime that evokes cries for vengeance. On the other, both defendants appeared to have organic brain damage, and neither had a history of committing violent crimes.