It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that a man should be killed for so little…
– Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
In Cold Blood is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I got the audio book from my library yesterday. I am just beginning, but I am already hooked. It’s one of those books you can’t put down.
The story, as you might already know, is about a murder. Specifically, the murder of four people, the four brutal members of the Clutter family in unassuming Holcomb, Kansas.
That is not a spoiler. They tell you right on the cover.
Nobody would ever think of In Cold Blood as a mystery, but that’s really what Capote has crafted here. In a traditional mystery, a reader doesn’t really know if the mystery will be solved, who is going to die, that sort of thing. But In Cold Blood is not that, and never claimed to be that. Instead, Capote is relying on something else.
The suspense that the book created in a single word: why?
Why was this family, that had no real problems, that was well-respected, that loved one another, killed? Why did this man, self-made, who had no real enemies to speak of, have his throat cut? Why did they all have to die that way?
That is the question I wanted this book to answer, hell, I needed this book to answer.
It turns out the characters wanted answers just as much as I did.
The Sunday after the murders occurred, news traveled fast, through radio, telephone, and pulpits. One of the town citizens, the local postmaster Myrt Clare, talked about the news to a customer that walks into the post office in Holcomb.
Her reaction, given the situation, is an odd one. She tells her customer, angrily, that the Clutters are dead, and that Herb Clutter, a man who by all rights is a well-loved, respected citizen of the town, deserved his death:
“I’m not surprised,” Mrs. Clare said. “When you think how Herb Clutter spent his whole life in a hurry, rushing in here to get his mail with never a minute to say good-morning-and-thank-your-dog, rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off – joining clubs, running everything, getting jobs maybe other people wanted. And now look – it’s all caught up with him. Well, he won’t be rushing any more.”
She then settles on the man that Clutter sued for destroying his fruit trees as the culprit of the murders.
Another citizen, the owner of the local cafe, theorizes that it was Mrs. Clutter. It was assumed that she murdered everyone in her family because she had a history of mental illness.
Yet another theorized that Mr. Clutter was sleeping around, and that the killings were jealous revenge.
Now a day before, this man and his family were some of the most upstanding people in town. Yet, when people look for explanations for the crime, the blame turns to the Clutters themselves. It’s an incredibly cruel, especially when you begin to discover what actually happened.
They do this because the alternative is far more terrible: that a man and his family had done nothing to deserve the crime, that the cosmic scales of justice offered no way for a person to avoid a fate like that. Being a good person, an upstanding member of the community, going to church, having a gun and a watchdog, none of these things were enough to protect you.
That is, if it could happen to a guy like Herb Clutter, it could happen to them too.
We can shake our heads at the cruelty and cowardice of these people, but we do the same thing whenever we see victims of crime.
For a victim of sexual assault, we don’t ask about the perpetrator. We ask what were they wearing, or if they were they trying to entice. For a mass shooter, we ask if they were bullied, even though we learned, later, that this wasn’t an factor. With terrorism, we come up with all sorts of theories before we even know what’s happening. Even when we do know what happened, we come up with new theories because what actually happened, well, we don’t like those explanations.
It’s true that these deeds are horrible. But the most important thing to remember is the blanks that we haven’t filled, the explanations we can never truly find.
We cling to false ones desperately, because the alternative, that there is no pattern, at least no pattern that we might understand, is terrifying. The idea that bad things can happen to good people, and that those good people might even be us, is horror in and of itself.
But so too is the knowledge we might heap further terror after the damage has been done because we cannot own up to this fact.
I can tell you, finishing the book, that the Clutters were the victims of fate more than anything else. They never lifted their hand against anyone. They never did anything cruel or mean. In the end, that’s why the Clutters really died: they ran into some terrible luck. And it’s the way a lot of us will go as well.
What’s worse is how their former friends and neighbors reacted. They didn’t even wait to put them in the ground before smearing them with unfounded theories.
It may not be murder, but that makes the blood run cold too.