Review / In Cold Blood and Stiff

lg cold blood stiff

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (Random House, 1965)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004)

In Cold Blood has been in my reading pile for a few months now. When summer finally broke its hold on Austin, I thought it was time for the murder story. I read In Cold Blood with Stiff, taking turns between the two—read one hundred pages of one then switched to the other. Stiff, which traces the gruesome history of human cadavers over 2,000 years, was my comedic relief.

This my first time reading Capote, and I was curious how he would entrap the reader in a story that is told completely up front. The cover states, “On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered….Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers.”

The two books complement one another well. Capote teases out the psyche of killers and questions our criminal system; Roach explores forensics, experiments, decay, and the choices we have for our bodies—should we be lucky enough to have the time to choose. She covers the bodies stolen from cemeteries by early anatomists to real (dead) bodies used for car crash testing. Roach tells us as she enters a field with corpses spread out on the ground:

They are donated cadavers, helping, in their mute, fragrant way, to advance the science of criminal forensics. For the more you know about how dead bodies decay—the biological and chemical phases they go through, how long each phase lasts, how the environment affects these phases—the better equipped you are to figure out when any given body died: in other words, the day and even the approximate time of day it was murdered.

Naturally, the two books overlap on the subject of killing by gun—the weapon that would end the lives of the Clutter family. In Stiff, Roach explores, “If it takes ten or twelve seconds to lose consciousness from blood loss (and consequent oxygen deprivation to the brain), why, then, do people who have been shot so often collapse on the spot? ….Duncan MacPherson, a respected ballistics expert and consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department….insists the effect is purely psychological. Whether or not you collapse depends on your state of mind.”

I turned back to Capote’s striking prose and thought about Mrs. Clutter, the last to die and the one who could hear it all: “Her eyes were open. Wide open. As though she were still looking at the killer.”

Through Stiff’s often gruesome topics, Roach maintains her humor and frankness. She describes how exactly something might kill us, provides sensory descriptions of decaying bodies, and fully appreciates the awkwardness of being around a body (whole or cut into pieces). While visiting a research center in Knoxville, Roach observes:

Something else is going on. Squirming grains of rice are crowded into the man’s belly button. It’s a rice grain mosh pit. But rice grains do not move. These cannot be grains of rice. They are not. They are young flies….They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath the surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.

You can tell yourself a lot of things to deal with decaying flesh, old age, or murder. The human mind can become desensitized over time—done purposely, by accident, or through circumstance. Perry Smith, one of the Clutter killers, exposes his life-long isolation from people to Don Cullivan who served with him in the army, “The truth is, you’ve done more for me than any what you call God ever has. Or ever will. By writing to me, by signing yourself ‘friend.’”

Smith and Richard Hickock, the other Clutter killer, were both alienated from society and shared a lack of warmth in their lives which enabled them to kill without remorse. Handlers of cadavers must create a separation of their own. “It’s gory, but not sad. Gore you get used to. Shattered lives you don’t,” Roach writes. “Shanahan does what the pathologists do. ‘They focus on the parts, not the person. During the autopsy they’ll be describing the eyes, then the mouth. You don’t stand back and say, ‘This is a person who is the father of four.’ It’s the only way you can emotionally survive.”

Both books force the reader to think about their own mortality. Roach makes us laugh while Capote horrifies us. He asks, “How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this—smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?”


Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. Votang is the Director of Communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park.

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