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In Cold Blood Summary and Analysis

by Truman Capote

The Corner, Part 1 (248-307)

Dick and Perry are confined to separate quarters of the Finney County jailhouse. Dick occupies a cell in the men’s wing, while Perry resides adjacent to the Sheriff’s residence, in the cell typically reserved for female convicts. Several months pass, during which the state-appointed defense attorneys prepare their cases. Dick and Perry make official statements, and Perry revises his confession to read that he (Perry) pulled the trigger on all four victims (this, he confides, is done not out of concern for Dick but out of respect for Dick’s beleaguered parents). Dick and Perry’s advocates arrange for a psychiatric evaluation of the two men, which is performed by a young doctor named W. Mitchell Jones. One week before the trial is set to begin in Garden City, an auction is held at River Valley Farm, and all of the Clutters’ possessions are sold.

The trial begins, and the testimonies are heard from Sue Kidwell, Nancy Ewalt, and various other residents and officials of Holcomb; Floyd Wells; the four K.B.I. agents, including Alvin Dewey; Mr. Hickock; and finally, Dr. Jones.

In his psychiatric evaluations of the two men, Dr. Jones has uncovered a number of explanatory details. Dick, he concludes, shows signs of “emotional abnormality,” which may be a sign of brain damage incurred in a car accident as a young man. Feelings of social and sexual inadequacy are at the root of many of Dick’s more reckless criminal actions; in short, Dick shows “fairly typical characteristics of what would psychiatrically be called a severe character disorder” (295).

Even more pronouncedly, Perry “shows definite signs of severe mental illness.” Neglected as a child, he has developed a “‘paranoid’ orientation toward the world,” and “in evaluating the intentions and feelings of others, his ability to separate the real intention from his own mental projections is very poor.” Perhaps most significant is his “poorly controlled rage—easily triggered by any feeling of being tricked, slighted or labeled inferior to others.” His personality traits, in other words, most closely resemble that of a paranoid schizophrenic.

Having made these diagnoses, however, Dr. Jones is unable to present them in full at the trial; the court’s criteria for establishing criminal intent does not encompass these more implicit and indirect psychological factors. However, in an article published around the time of the trial, a colleague of Dr. Jones, Dr. Joseph Statten, makes a similar psychological evaluation of four other convicted murderers: namely, that after experiencing “severe emotional deprivation” in childhood, and feelings of inadequacy throughout their lives, these men committed atrocities of violence while in a detached frame of mind. Dr. Statten concludes that the killers unconsciously made their victims into a kind of surrogate object of blame for their previous life traumas.

Perry is visited by Don Cullivan, an old friend from his Army days who, upon hearing the news of Perry’s arraignment, volunteers to testify as a “character witness” for Perry. Cullivan, a devout Catholic, dines with Perry and attempts to comfort him with thoughts of God’s mercy. Perry admits that he is not bothered by the murders and is hence unable to feel remorse.

In the closing remarks of the trial, the beleaguered defense lawyers appeal to the mercy of the jury, attempting to dissuade them from exacting the highest form of punishment. After a forty-minute deliberation, the jury finds both Dick and Perry guilty on four counts of murder in the first degree, and sentence them both to death.

Analysis:

After the book’s extensive exploration of the personalities of Dick and Perry, the professional findings of Dr. Jones come as no surprise, but they carry their own weight nonetheless. Dr. Jones uncovers a clinical basis for many of the their more pronounced traits, including the behaviors that played a direct role in the events of November 14th.

In particular, the murder of Herb Clutter becomes transparent: the patriarch of the Clutter family symbolized, for Perry, all the frustrations and missed opportunities of his own life. As he says later in the book, “I didn't have anything against them, and they never did anything wrong to me--the way other people have all my life. Maybe they're just the ones who had to pay for it." Herb Clutter represents “‘a key figure in some past traumatic configuration’: his father? the orphanage nuns who had derided and beaten him? the hated army sergeant? the parole officer who had ordered him to ‘stay out of Kansas’? One of them, or all of them” (302). As well, Perry’s trance-like state (“mental eclipse”) while committing the murders is accounted for as a common experience of those with his background and psychological disposition.

This complex and nuanced interpretation of Perry and Dick’s psychological makeup invites sympathy rather than condemnation, and this may be part of the reason that the testimony of Dr. Jones is denied during the trial. The prisoners are held to the simplistic M’Naghten rule, which contends that if the defendant knows his actions were wrong by the “usual definitions of right and wrong,” then he is responsible for them. This is opposed to the more lenient Durham rule, which claims that defendants cannot be held responsible if the crime is the result of a mental defect (which would, if upheld, exonerate the two prisoners).

The court’s inability or unwillingness to sustain Dr. Jones’ testimony is, on some level, a symbol that the world is not yet ready to accommodate the complexity and fundamental difference of these men within its narrow definitions of acceptable society. Dick and Perry are social misfits on multiple levels: their mental illness, their implied repressed homosexuality, and their status as ex-convicts place them outside the accepted parameters of conventional (or “normal”) living as they existed at this time in American history. They are the very definition of “other,” and the comfortable, complacent world that the Clutters represent has turned its back on them, shown no responsibility towards them. In Cold Blood is, on some level, a parable about a society coming of age, failing to cater to its more destitute ranks, and coming face-to-face with the consequences of this failure.

In a moment of sympathy for Perry, Agent Dewey reflects that “the crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act” (245). Nevertheless, in the same moment he is seized by the realization of the horror experienced by the Clutters at the hands of these men: “They had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered.” In spite of its understanding of the killers and their motivation, the book remains ambivalent on the subject of the crime itself, as it sees the killers through their very last days.

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