It’s brilliant and effective, yes, but it’s ultimately just the story of how two vile egoists (even Capote’s powers cannot make them into sympathetic characters) butchered a decent family.
It’s more interesting as a cultural artifact than as a piece of literature per se.
For instance, Capote provides a portrait of the rural Bible Belt culture that influenced my own childhood context. The Clutters are teetotalers, gravely serious about religion, the closest thing to aristocrats in a community neither academic or urbane yet practically intelligent and fiercely concerned with honor and virtue. This culture was the connecting tissue between the European immigrants of the 19th century and the evangelical Religious Right of the 1980s.
The narrative tone indicates estrangement from these small-town Midwesterners. To the Black and White Ball set that formed Capote’s most important audience, the Clutters aren’t real – they’re inscrutable ascetic saints living amid the alien beauty of some flyover Timbuktu. The people of Holcomb and Garden City are upstanding enough to be bona fide victims and heroes of this horror story, sure, but they are too prudish and Pharisaical to provoke real pangs of empathy in the WASP dinner-party circle. After all, it’s not as if Perry and Dick slaughtered a financier and his wife and their private-schooled children. The killers didn’t “blast hair all over the walls” of a Manhattan apartment.
Maybe this estrangement is a material one. Capote and his masquerade guests were already living in a modern society, not a regional community like Holcomb. In Cold Blood depicts the end of communities built on shared ideals and the degrading transition into an atomized modern society. I’m part of that modernity – I was caught off-guard by the way the people of Holcomb reacted to the Clutter murders with fear for their own lives. But it makes sense. They lived in a community, while we live anonymously. Someone’s murder a few streets over has little or no impact on the chance that I will be murdered. I’d be more concerned about someone sighting a bear in the neighborhood.
Tom Wolfe saw the basics of what he labelled “porno-violence” at the heart of In Cold Blood: “So read on, gentle readers, and on and on; you are led up to the moment before the crime on page 60—yet the specifics, what happened, the gory details, are kept out of sight, in grisly dangle, until page 244.” Of course it’s all tame compared to our shock sites, that great family tree descending from the old patriarch of rotten dot com. But all the same the rot is there, if nascent.
Television is an insidious presence throughout Capote’s narrative – “the only way to keep the kids pacified”, the enervating pastime of the rich Clutters as well as the underclasses, the future purveyor of endless hours of porno-violence.
The natural law foundation of culture was also rotting away, contrary to the traditionalist idealism of America before the Haight-Ashbury era. The climactic trial sequence is a miserable process full of attempts from all sides to use religion, sentimentality, and Freudian jargon to deny the obvious demands of natural law and lex talionis.
In that light, Barbara’s letter to Perry appealing to him on the basis of natural law and common sense becomes a highlight of the book. Perry fell prey to the same delusion that corrupted Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment: a belief that he is not a “conventional person” subject to bourgeois morality. Barbara uses naive (but true) natural law appeals to persuade him that he is not above the laws, that he must not transgress fundamental moral demands in pursuit of his own individualism. And of course it is a faux-intellectual, Willie Jay, who slyly overturns her argument and retains Perry for the hangman.
Eventually it is a death row guard who shatters Perry’s Napoleon complex. An exquisite literary touch that only reality could provide.