The mind of a monster

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

I discovered this book through reading To Kill a Mockingbird namely because my bookclub mentioned that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were quite good friends (and Capote even dedicates this book to her at the beginning). Anyway, I also thought the title was really cool (and Capote sounded like he was some Chicago mob boss – though I am probably getting him mixed up with Capone) that when I was scouring through the book shop later that week I was keeping my eye out for this one (and since it is one of the Penguin reprints it wasn't all that difficult to find). As it turns out this is the second best selling true crime novel of all time (though I can't quite remember where I saw that quoted, nor do I know which novel sold more than this one).


In Cold Blood is probably best described as a psychological exploration into the minds of a couple of brutal killers, though much of the psychological exploration doesn't come about until the last chapter. The story focuses around two young men who broke into the house of a wealthy Kansas farmer and, upon finding that there was nothing in the way of valuables inside, proceeded to kill him and his family. The actual murder occurs at the beginning of the book and the rest tells the story about the investigation, the trial, and finally the culprit's final years on death row.


I guess the question that Capote is asking is how can a human being sink so low as to brutally murder four innocent people, and then not feel any shame or guilt about it afterwards. Many of us would simply not give a second thought about the murderers and simply write them off as animals that should be kept away from society for the rest of their lives (or even executed, not that I am a big fan of the death penalty, even in situations such as this). I guess the temptation when reading such accounts is to feel some empathy for the culprits, and since the story is now separated from our time by decades, the impact of such a murder is significantly lessened. Reading this book in 2015 as opposed to being present during the years in which the murder occurred and the culprits were on trial (as well as being separated geographically by the Pacific Ocean), the impact of the crime is substantially less, at least for me. Further, in the modern world where criminals undergo intense psychological examinations it is easy to say that they had a bad childhood, they never had a significant father figure, or it had something to do with their mother.


As I was reading this book it does become clear that the culprits never seemed to have had a normal family life, and in fact never seemed to have had any discipline in which they were told that to act in such a way was wrong. However, when Capote introduces another inmate on death row – this one having grown up in a loving family and was attending university – we discover that this lack of any significant role model is not necessarily the cause of somebody becoming a brutal murderer (this particular inmate murdered his own family simply because he wanted to inherit the estate, though Capote suggests that the reason for this was because he was a social outcast and believed that if he had money then he would be accepted amongst his peers).


It is interesting how the idea of 'the perfect murder' that seems to permeate detective novels never really comes about in real life. With regards to the Clutter murders, the culprits never travelled all that far from the scene of the murder, despite the fact that the investigators were convinced that they could quite easily have disappeared. In fact after they had committed the murders they simply went back to their lives, not that their lives involved the repetition of going to work every day – they were simply drifters who travelled from town to town committing crimes simply so that they could continue their meaningless existence. As for the other murderer, we are told that he had come out with this elaborate plan to poison his family and then burn the house down, before settling on simply gunning everybody down and attempting to blame the deed on some unnamed robbers (though he ended giving himself up when his pastor gave him the fire and brimstone speech).


I must admit that I do find criminology quite interesting, and it was one of my favourite subjects at university (though half the reason that I took the subject was because a part of it involved going on a tour of a couple of the local prisons), and it raises the question of what causes the guilty mind to work. I guess this is one of those questions that continues to plague criminologists, and it is easy to put the actions of these individuals down to social and psychological dysfunctions. This I believe is the case, however by equating the actions of murderers with some psychological (or sociological) disease doesn't no much to ease the pain that the relatives and friends of the victims go through when these people act in such a manner, especially when it comes to murder.


The thing with murder is that it is so final – they are simply don't come back. However, that does not necessarily mean that other crimes of violence are any less bad. The thing with crimes of violence is that they leave scars – whether it is physical or psychological – and it is not necessarily on the immediate victims either. Friends and families can also be affected by crimes of violence, and even though the scars may heal with time they do not necessarily go away. Psychological scars can never really be solved by the victim simply 'getting over it'. These scars can continue to haunt the victim even decades down the track – in a way they are never the same again. Crimes of violence can even leave psychological scars on the culprit as well, particularly with the concept of the guilty mind. Guilt can be quite powerful, and in some cases this guilt never goes away. The culprit can be burdened with this guilt for the rest of their lives. Sometimes guilt can force the culprit to hand themselves in, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the knowledge that they have 'got away with it' can override that feeling of guilt to the point that the perpetrator can commit such crimes without even acknowledging that they have done anything wrong. In some cases there are even people that simply don't even acknowledge that what they were doing is wrong, and I suspect that this is what Capote was trying to explore in this book.