Primarily explored through the seemingly motiveless and random killing of the Clutters, In Cold Blood grapples with the question of what is and isn’t evil. Characters – especially criminals – often hold conflicting and ambiguous attitudes toward evil. Perry, for example, seems to be of the opinion that his killing of the Clutters wasn’t necessarily an evil act. When asked by his staunchly Christian army buddy Don Cullivan whether he felt any shame or guilt for the murders, Perry simply shrugs. “Soldiers don’t lose much sleep,” he says. “They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work.” On the other hand, Perry has strong disapproval for what he calls “pervertiness” – he feels that Dick’s pedophilic tendencies are evil, and he goes so far as to prevent the rape of young Nancy Clutter before she’s shot in the head.
The question of who is capable of carrying out evil acts is also dealt with, primarily through a biographical and psychological exploration of Perry and Dick. In reading Perry’s psychological profile, one ultimately might question whether or not his crimes were actually evil, given that he seems psychologically predisposed toward certain acts of violence. To further complicate matters, Perry comes off as a highly sympathetic character, calling into question whether he himself is evil. After the final verdict, a young Oklahoman reporter remarks, “’Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life -‘“
The banality of evil – that is, the idea that evil is often committed as a matter of course, sometimes as part of someone’s job – is also explored. The hanging of Perry and Dick, for example, is clearly an act of state sanctioned murder – but does this mean the hangman is committing an evil act?
Evil Quotes in In Cold Blood
At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.
…once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t. Or will – depending. As long as you life, there’s always something waiting, and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do?
Now, what kind of person would do that – tie up two women…and then draw up the bedcovers, tuck them in, like sweet dreams and good night?
But I’m afraid of [Perry]. I always have been. He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily…. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him –
Perry Smith killed the Clutters…. It was Perry. I couldn’t stop him. He killed them all.
Nonetheless, [Alvin] found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger…for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another.
Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill – a lot easier than passing a bad check. Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel different. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking targets off in a shooting gallery.
Well, what’s there to say about capital punishment? I’m not against it. Revenge is all it is, but what’s wrong with revenge? …I believe in hanging. Just so long as I’m not the one being hanged.
I think…it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something – It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize.