Side-by-side Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote/Reportage on Crime by Nick Joaquin
“No. Because once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t” – Perry Smith, In Cold Blood
“For all these new suburbs in Makati used to be grassland, riceland, marshland, or pastoral solitudes where few cared to go, until the big city spilled hither, replacing the uprooted reeds with split-levels, pushing noisy little streets into the heart of the solitude, and collecting here from all over the country the uprooted souls that now moan or giggle where once carabao wallowed and the frogs croaked day and night. In the very new suburbs, one feels human sorrow to be a gross intrusion on the labors of nature.” – Narrator, Nick Joaquin
Growing up in a conservative family, I always thought that there were no gray areas when it comes to morality. Evil and Good are two separate entities with no buffer zones and are therefore completely distinguishable from one another. I believe that as a child and, as a result, I believed then that anyone who committed a crime deserves to be punished whatever his motives are and even if there are other factors that should be considered.
As I grew up, this perception changed as I learned about new stuff like ethics and the problems that are facing those who commit crime. I learned that there are economic, societal, emotional, and psychological factors to consider. One of the early questions I asked myself regarding ethics was would it be okay to steal in order to provide for a dying family? I debated that question in my mind and I decided that human life is more important than money. It was a time of a change in my morality as I surmised that some crimes committed should be punished according to circumstance. Yes, stealing is a crime and one should not condone stealing, but a society should not also devolve into a society that forces it citizenry to survive through stealing.
Reading In Cold Blood and Reportage on Crime made me think again about the nature of crime, punishment, and morality, more so because both books are non-fiction. The criminals in In Cold Blood, especially Perry Smith, and some of the criminals in Reportage on Crime are people whose circumstances are deplorable. Most of them grew up in a home without a love and lived in a society that has shunned them.
In Reportage on Crime, Nick Joaquin presents the reader with thirteen stories about crime in Manila (I always believed in the fact that Manila is a perfect setting for noir where there is always a question of morality that hangs in the air). Of all the stories, there are three that chilled me the most. The first is titled The House on Zapote Street which is an account of a marriage gone horribly wrong due to an overprotective and conservative father; the second is titled The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society is a narrative about how a boy committed himself to bad influences, which culminated in him murdering a member of a rival gang; and the third is titled A Prevalence of Witches; or the Exorcists – Filipino Style is a story about a couple who killed their two children because of superstition and paranoia. Reading these stories gives you a microscopic view of the Filipino underworld that is mostly composed of people like us and these stories combine in order to give subtle critiques of the state of the Philippines and how, as a nation, we actually breed people who commit crime out of poverty, paranoia, and outdated culture.
As a parallel, In Cold Blood presents a view of a crime committed by members of the marginalized people of America. Perry Smith, who grew up in a dysfunctional household and, as an adult, lived in scorn towards a society that has failed to accept him. Instead Smith turns to Dick Hicock, a fellow outcast who, despite growing in a loving household, turned to a life of crime. Together, they planned to rob a family, the Clutters, in order to rise above their respective poverty but they failed to find the money that was not actually kept in the house of the Clutter household. As a response, they killed the entirety of the Clutter household even though there are no good reasons in doing so. They committed a murder without reason and in cold blood.
Both books could have concentrated on the crime themselves without exploring the history of the criminals. The writers could just have painted a portrait of absolute evil but they did not. Instead, they chose to explore the life of the criminals and shed light on the people. In doing so, both Capote and Joaquin has humanized the criminals and it gives the readers a reason to sympathize with the criminals and, instead of viewing them as evil, we view them as people who went off the wrong path and chose shortcuts with their lives. We want to help them but both books have established a sense of finality and it is already too late for the reader. What both books did successfully was giving the readers a sense that evil has a human side and tells us that what they did was wrong but they don’t deserve total hatred.
As for the style, there are distinct differences between Truman Capote and Nick Joaquin. The former has a prose-like feel to it and reading In Cold Blood was like reading a novel because of the way Capote described the surroundings and the way that he fleshes out the characters. On the other hand, because Nick Joaquin is a journalist and Reportage on Crime is based on Nick Joaquin’s experience on the crime desk, the latter’s style is more journalistic and objective and reading his work is like reading a newspaper article.
In my opinion, I liked In Cold Blood more than I liked Reportage on Crime. Don’t get me wrong, both are masterful works but In Cold Blood satisfied me more with its story and with the way Capote describe the events in detail. Reportage on Crime fell short, for me, because of its journalistic approach and the lack of character history in some stories which is understandable because this is an anthology and not a full-length novel.
However, both novels did leave an indelible mark in me. Not just about the nature and circumstances of crime and of criminals but also about the chilling fact that we are not as protected as we think we are.
Rating: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 5/5
Reportage on Crime by Nick Joaquin – 3/5