Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is very high on the list of “books I’ve been meaning to read for years but somehow keep forgetting to”, alongside such works as Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. (All works that seem unrelated, but have one thing in common – I know they’re important and they’re gonna be formative, so I treat them like dessert and save them for later).
However, after reading Gillian Flynn, Ruth Ware, and a few other true crime novels recently, I felt it was necessary to finally experience one of the original masterpieces of the genre written by one of the greats, Truman Capote. (Sidenote: when I first heart his name I remember thinking he must be a mobster or a gangster, but then I learned his birth name is Truman Streckfus Persons and I changed my mind).
I’m reluctant to admit, but I read this entire novel assuming it was fiction, not having known much about it including the fact that Capote himself labelled it as a “nonfiction novel”. As it turns out, Capote traveled to Holcomb, Kansas with THE Harper Lee to interview and investigate this crime back in 1959. In the opening acknowledgements Capote says:
“All the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time…”
This made it seem like it would be more fact than fiction, but for some reason I assumed he was pulling a Memoirs of a Geisha on me and treating a historical fiction novel as if it were a true account in order to achieve an “authentic narrative voice”. In hindsight, I should’ve Googled and I would’ve known immediately, but alas I did not. If anything, it gives me an excuse to go back and reread it through a different lens which is never a bad thing. Now my notes that say things like “extremely technical writing” , “no suspense – already know what happened and who did it”, and “real process of justice – case/trial takes years, authentic reactions from characters” all make a bit more sense//make me feel like an idiot, BUT I DIGRESS.
Having taken Capote six years to complete, In Cold Blood is masterfully crafted. It’s more than thoroughly researched, written in an authoritative yet accessible voice, and captures the horror of such a tragedy without crossing the line into “crime porn”. I will note however, that as many have said before, the story itself focuses more heavily on the killers than the victims. Some would argue that this is exploitative, which I agree with; however, in Capote’s defense, it seems that his intention all along was to complicate the image many of us have of a killer. Without defending the actions of Hickcock and Smith, Capote captures the intricacies and confusion that takes place inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer. He doesn’t attempt to offer explanations, because there aren’t any to offer; instead, he presents these two individuals in a way that causes the reader to reexamine previous assumptions and encourages them to delve further into the psyche formed through childhood trauma, upbringing, lifestyle choices, and a myriad of other factors responsible in causing someone to commit such an atrocious act of violence.
[*DISCLAIMER* I’m going to mention the basic details of the crime, but will be leaving out several important details including the backgrounds of the killers, evidence, and the subsequent trial and sentencing of the killers. I encourage anyone interested in the case to do their own research into the crime. Also it goes without saying, but reading the book itself should help fill in the blanks!]
In the early hours of November 15th, 1959 four shotgun blasts broke the silence in the small farm-town of Holcomb, Kansas. The victims of the blasts were four members of the Clutter family – Herbert William Clutter, who went by Herb (the father), Bonnie (the mother), Nancy (their daughter), and Kenyon (their son). The killers were Richard “Dick” Hickcock (28 years old) and Perry Edward Smith (31 years old). The pair claimed to have broken into the house in search of a safe containing thousands of dollars and intended to leave “No witnesses”. All told, the killers ended up stealing somewhere between $40 and $50, a pair of binoculars, and a small portable radio. The Clutter murderers were hanged on Wednesday, April 14th, 1965 – Hickcock died at 33 years old at 12:41 am, followed by Smith, 36, at 1:19 am.
In an effort to avoid exploiting the deaths of the Clutter family, I’m not going to include any crime scene photos in this post. For an archive of public images regarding this crime you can visit Crime Archives. (I recognize that providing the resource to view these images essentially defeats my purpose to not exploit the victims, however, the images have been public and easily accessible for many years and will inevitably pop up in any Google search you may do after reading this post.)
In this same vein, on November 18th, 2017, SundanceTV premiered a docuseries titled Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders. An article on the project from PeopleCrime stated, “Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger, the four-hour docuseries features new information about the case, never-before-seen footage and photographs and, for the first time ever, on-camera interviews with Clutter family members.”
Surviving members of the Clutter family were unhappy with Capote’s 1966 book, stating that it focused too heavily on the killers and the crime, treating the victims themselves as background information to the story. In the same People article, one of the granddaughters of Herb and Bonnie Clutter, daughter to one of the surviving Clutter daughters, stated, ““The family has not profited from the book or movies and would have never taken any money if it was offered.”
Although I’ve not seen the docuseries, hopefully it refocuses the attention on the Clutter family and who they were as individuals, rather than treat them solely as victims of a horrific crime.
In researching this case, I came across an article on Smithsonian.com from December 2012 stating that the bodies of Hickcock and Smith were to be exhumed as part of an unsolved crime which took place just one month after the Clutter murders – another quadruple murder, that of Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Walker and their son and daughter whom had all been killed by a rifle shot to the head. Capote includes this suspicion in his book ending the paragraph describing the Florida crime with, “The murderer of the Walker family remains unknown” (p. 258).
Unfortunately, a subsequent article dated August 14, 2013 reports that because only partial profiles could be taken from the bodies, and the fact that the Walker crime scene photos were old and degraded, a solid DNA match was unable to be made, although authorities still believe the two men were involved in the killings.
WOW WHAT A TRUE CRIME WORMHOLE I’VE FALLEN INTO FOR THIS POST. I’ve been looking at random crime scene photos and pulling up multiple horrifically-titled articles in full view of anyone that can see my computer screen at this Starbucks. I am probably also now on several NSA watch lists based on my search history. I accept whatever fate befalls me.
Please, please, leave me any and all crime related books, fiction or nonfiction (hopefully I’ll figure out which one it is before I start reading the book), and as always, thanks for reading!
[Also, sorry the end of this post sounds so chipper and happy, this was obviously a horrific crime and I can’t imagine what anyone close to the Clutters must have gone through during or after this tragedy. The only way to explain my tone at the end here is by listening to Karen Gilgariff and Georgia Hardstark talk about murder on their podcast My Favorite Murder – I plan on making a post about it soon, but their podcast captures the combination of fascination and horror that I feel towards crimes like this.]