In honour of Halloween: a book about remembering the dead. This is no story of supernatural horrors but of true crime, written by the remarkable American author and playwright Truman Capote. Capote spent years investigating a home invasion and murder of a family in Kansas that took place in 1959, taking the approach of investigating journalism. Based on dozens of interviews with everyone involved in the event – police, neighbours, relatives and the murderers themselves – Capote wrote an account of the murder, the search for the culprits and the subsequent trial.
It’s 1959 when Truman Capote reads a short article in The New York Times about an unsolved murder in the small town of Holcomb, Finney County, Kansas. He immediately decides that this will be the subject of his next writing project and travels to Holcomb with his best friend, Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). One of the town’s prominent citizens, the rich farmer Herbert Clutter, is found murdered in his own house. So are his wife, Bonnie Clutter, and his two youngest children: Nancy (16) and Kenyon (15). The family was tied up in different rooms of the house and shot dead, with no apparent motive or sign of the killer. The tight-knit community of Holcomb is in shock and wonder if one of their trusted neighbours is the murderer. Capote follows the investigation closely, aided during the first three months by Harper Lee, who is particularly adept at befriending the wives of people Capote wants to interview. The result of the colossal project, that would take six years to complete, is a book about the terrible incident and its impact on Holcomb, the people who were connected to the events and Americans nationwide who read about it in the press.
The story begins with a description of the Clutter family and their happy, quiet life in and around Holcomb. We then skip to another scene: two young men, recently released from prison, who are trying to get hold of some black stockings. The men are Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock, who are on their way to act on a tip of a prison mate. Apparently, a certain Mr Clutter, who lives on a farm in Finney County, has a huge safe full of cash in his house. Smith and Hickock intend to rob him of this cash. It should be a quick, easy job. It turns out not to be: there is no safe in the house and the night of the robbery ends in the murder of the Clutter family. Throughout the book, the perspective alternates between the murderers, who go on the run through America, the people of Holcomb and the police who try to find out who committed the murders. Smith and Hickock are suspected, hunted down, tried, convicted and eventually executed. The case is heavily reported on in the national news, putting ample pressure on the police to capture the culprits. Capote’s account of the events adds human interest: the background of the murderers and victims, their personalities and idiosyncrasies. Especially interesting is that Truman Capote interviewed Smith and Hickock extensively after they were captures, developing a curious sort of familiarity with them. Perry Smith, who was quieter and friendlier than Dick Hickock, especially fascinated him. Capote would be present at the men’s hangings on 14 April, 1965.
Capote himself promoted In Cold Blood as a ‘nonfiction novel’. You might wonder how anyone could write a novel without inventing anything – a valid criticism, as it turns out. The core of the story is verifiably true, but many dialogues and other embellishments have sprouted from the author’s vivid imagination. Capote came to know most of his characters, who were of course real, living people, very well and felt he could reasonably guess how certain conversations would have played out. However, several of these people have later come forward to state that quotes, facts or entire scenes in Capote’s story are completely fabricated. The author received a lot of criticism, but the book had made millions in the meantime and continues to be a success. It was one of the first true crime novels and brought the genre its popularity.
I get the attraction of this genre, but I do have some problems with it. At times, I read Wikipedia pages of serial murders, fascinated and horrified like a sort of long distance disaster tourist. I don’t think it’s a particularly good way of spending my time – so why do I do it? Not to learn about human nature, because clearly only a tiny number of severely disturbed people are serial killers. It’s not about the solving of a mystery either. If so, I could just as well read stories of elaborate robberies that are probably much smarter and much better conducted than most killings. I think it has probably to do with the fact that these accounts are true, but they don’t sound true. At least to me, it is impossible to imagine that people can be cruel and violent for absolutely no reason, with no burden to their conscience and no redeeming circumstances. Yet here we are. Real people, in our own modern times, walk into homes of other real people and murder them. Reading about this gives the peculiar feeling of horror of inexplicable reality.
Does the fascination of the readers justify writing a book that capitalises on a tragedy? I’m not sure it does. The story is well-written, intelligent, thoroughly researched, but is still a sensation story. Capote knew this and used it. He was known for being good at the promotion of his own works. In this book, facts that would usually have been considered ‘spoilers’ are told early on: we learn the murderers’ identities in the first chapter and are told that they would be caught and put to trial. The reader knows what is going to happen but keeps reading because Capote holds on to the details of the actual murder until almost the end of the book. You know how the bodies of the Clutter family were found but you crave to hear about what exactly happened on the day they were murdered. Those details are what the book builds up to for more than 250 pages. The rest of the book is devoted to Hickock and Smith’s conviction, time on death row (including accounts of the crimes of the other murderers there) and eventual executions. Because of writers like Capote and readers like me, the murder of four innocent people and consequential death of two guilty ones could be converted to millions of dollars.
Apart from my ethical doubts, though, Capote does a good job. He takes his time to paint a picture of quiet Holcomb and the Clutter family before delving into the complicated relationship between the two murderers and the high-profile murder investigation that takes years off the life of Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator. The many interviews (and Capote’s imagination, of course) enable him to write extensively about the lives, habits and motives of his characters. Only occasionally does he veer off to the sentimental side, for instance in his description of the Clutters as the perfect, model family who do nothing but good in their little town. Another example is the very last scene in the book, wherein Alvin Dewey by chance meets Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, by the graves of the family. It’s a few years since the murders took place, so Susan has grown up and is in college. She’s “a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining—just such a young woman as Nancy might have been.” The coincidence of the meeting, paired with the contemplation of what might have been, was a bit too much for me.
Mostly though, Capote’s storytelling is good. He had me hoping that the Clutter family would escape, even when I already knew they were going to die. He had me wanting some redemption arc for the murderers, although what redemption could there be for killing a random family? The story is gripping and its form very original at the time it was written, so the book would be entertaining if it didn’t deal with real people and real events. As it is, the story fails to elevate itself above a horrible guilty pleasure.
Train Wreck Award: you can’t look away
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences (New York 1965)