In Cold Blood

Banned Books Week is Sept 21 – 27th. Ever since I took a class on Young Adult Literature in Graduate School, I’ve been interested in why books are banned and how I can  get people to read these banned/challenged books in protest of the censorship. I found this Ray Bradbury quote the other day, which is rather appropriate: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” For that YA class, I did a paper on Chris Crutcher’s book Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, an awesome book, that has been challenged by at least one school district. My way is by getting the word out there is via book reviews, as the main purpose of the week is to celebrate freedom to read whatever you want.

Smith and Hickock Mugshots

Perry Smith (above) and Dick Hickock (below)

I have chosen to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for my review this year. Most people have at least heard of the book through the movie they made a year after the book’s release, in 1967, or the 2005 biopic Capote starring the late Seymour Hoffman. I have seen neither film, although the Capote film does interest me as it is the author’s story of researching for the book. I picked this book this year because I enjoy narrative nonfiction (especially true crime) and this book is supposed to be the birth of the true crime genre. The author had this to say about the book “This book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” The book was an instant sell-out and made the author incredibly famous, though he already had a taste for that when the studios nabbed his short novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s and turned it into a movie.

All that being said, I rather enjoyed reading the book. Obviously this book has been reviewed a lot since its serialized release in 1965 and book release in 1966, but I will give a brief summary to those who have no idea what I am talking about. On November 15, 1959 Perry Smith and Richard “Dick”  Hickock broke into the Clutter Family’s home in Holcomb, Kansas in the middle of the night after being told by a fellow inmate months before that the Clutters were really rich and possibly had a safe on property. Dick planned on robbing the prosperous wheat farming family, and I believe brought Perry along as muscle, using him to tie up their hostages. When they realized that the Clutters only had about $54 in cash at the house, as Mr. Herb Clutter only paid for things by check, they killed Herb and his wife Bonnie, along with his 16-year-old son Kenyon and their 17-year-old daughter Nancy with a shotgun blast to the head. They evaded capture for about six weeks before the inmate that had tipped them off about the money also decided to collect a reward by tipping them off to the police.

Clutter-Family

Yes, it was a bit hard to read due the literally cold-blooded reaction to the murders by the men.  The crime scene photos, which were not in the book, are particularly horrifying even 50 years later. But it was fascinating and overall I enjoyed the book. You really felt like you were there with Alvin Dewey, lead investigator for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the team in charge of the Clutter murders. You can see him getting frazzled as he hasn’t been able to find any leads in the case and is smoking 60 cigarettes a day and not eating anything. You see the easy going attitude of Dick Hickock as he is not fazed by the newspaper reports on the murders, how paranoid Perry Smith is in contrast. While Smith has no trouble with violence, he thinks Hickock is disgusting in the way he cannot control himself sexually around young girls, and even goes so far as to say to Dewey that he threatened to beat Hickock up before he would let him rape Nancy Clutter. We even learn a little about the Clutter family, the victims in this case. Herb Clutter was well-respected in his community and at church and Bonnie was a shy woman and spent most of her adult life moving from hospital to hospital to cure her “nervous disposition”. Nancy was friends with everyone and though she was incredibly busy, always spent time helping others out. She wanted to go to college with her best friend Sue and study art together. Her brother Kenyon was shy like his mother, and spent most of his time driving around with his “Coyote Chaser” and building furniture in his basement workroom. They were simple country folk who met an untimely end. The two murderers, Hickock and Smith, were hung about five years after the murders.

Now for the censorship part of the post. According to the ALA’s Banned and/or Challenged classic book list, In Cold Blood was “banned, but later reinstated after community protests at the Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, GA (2000). The controversy began in early 1999 when a parent complained about sex, violence, and profanity in the book that was part of an Advanced Placement English Class.” According to the Marshall University Library, there was a challenge again in 2012 in Glendale, CA when the “Unified School District officials and parents attempted to block a request by a high school English teacher to add the text to the district’s advanced English curriculum because the nonfiction book was “too violent for a young audience;” the school board voted 4-0 to approve the book for Advanced Placement students.”

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