[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Guest demonstrates how In Cold Blood "presents a sort of narrative analogue" of the modern criminal justice system in the way in which it focuses on the criminal "biographies" of the killers rather than on the crime itself.]
I have certainly heard it said that, on occasion he chased with a scythe a child who happened to be in his yard; but people also said that it was only in jest. Certainly no one would have thought anything more of it had it not been for the murders he has committed.--Testimony of Pierre Riviere's Priest in Foucault's I, Pierre Riviere
The power in the hierarchized surveillance of the disciplines is not possessed as a thing, or transferred as a property; it functions like a piece of machinery. ... This enables the disciplinary power to be both absolutely indiscreet, since it is everywhere and always alert, since by its very principle it leaves no zone of shade ... and absolutely "discreet," for it functions permanently and largely in silence.--Foucault, Discipline
In the forty years between An American Tragedy and In Cold Blood, many of the arguments advanced in Dreiser's novel and in Wright's Native Son eventually brought a temporary halt to capital punishment. An American Tragedy showed that discretionary sentencing allows class bias and wealth to shape a judge's or jury's perceptions of dangerousness, degree of responsibility and self-control, and punishability. Around the country, and especially in the Deep South, discretionary sentencing permitted all-white juries to sentence African-Americans and the very poor to death while sparing well-to-do whites convicted of the same offenses. This demonstrably inconsistent sentencing and racist bias prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, that death sentences were being awarded in a manner so "arbitrary" and "freakish" as to be unconstitutional. There ensued an unofficial moratorium on executions. Capote's novel was published almost exactly at the beginning of a decade in which no death sentences were carried out.
Capote's novel also marks a shift in the kind of capital offender under scrutiny. McTeague and An American Tragedy depict the sudden and startling eruption of murder in previously law-abiding working-class men. Bigger Thomas is a small-time hood who finds the role of murderer forced upon him. In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song depict state-raised convicts, willful delinquents who seem to opt for a criminal, subversive lifestyle. In one sense, the difference reflects a change in the practice of execution. Norris and Dreiser wrote about relatively anonymous offenders at a time when executions were fairly frequent. Patrick Collins and Chester Gillette were unremarkable members of a large crowd, two representative cases chosen from hundreds. Capote and Mailer wrote at a time when executions occurred rarely, if at all. Today the executed few tend to be the most violent hard-core delinquents and convicts, criminals of the sort least suited to the defense mounted by Dreiser and Darrow.
The two murderers at the center of In Cold...