Columns > Published on November 15th, 2012

LURID: In Cold Blood - The Art of Murder

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose and the precision of poetry. — Truman Capote

I think it affected him more than he realized.  That book took everything out of him.  He was so sensitive.  He wasn't a tough nut.— C.Z. Guest

Certainly the most detailed and atmospheric account ever written of a contemporary crime...[but]...we must pose the two central questions: Is it art? and is it morally defensible?— Kenneth Tynan

You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker... You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. — William S. Burroughs

Murder is the truest measure of society... There is nothing more burdened with meaning than the taking of life.

Murder is the truest measure of society.  The examination of a homicide, the victims, the perpetrators, the punishment and the way the consequences resonate over time can reveal more about the state of a nation than any number of studies -- even an election.  When human nature is to dissemble, to conspire, to exaggerate, to romanticize, to euphemize, murder provides a moment of raw, awkward truth.  The act of killing another is irrevocable, unforgivable, unrepeatable.  In dramatic terms, it provides the ultimate inciting incident, as well as the most final of exit points.  There is nothing more burdened with meaning than the taking of life.

Aeschylus knew this when he wrote Agamemnon, about Clytemnestra’s murder of her faithless husband and his slave-concubine, Cassandra, in the 5th century B.C.E.  John Webster knew it, when he wove the details of Giovanna d’Aragona’s tragic life into The Duchess of Malfi, in 1612-13.  George Lippard knew it, when he used the 1843 scandal of Sarah Mercer (seduced by wealthy young buck Mahlon Heberton, who was subsequently shot dead by Sarah’s brother, Singleton) in his bestseller Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall.  Theodore Dreiser knew it when he based American Tragedy on the 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette. James M. Cain knew it when he took the details of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray’s 1927 dual murder plot and turned them into Double Indemnity.  And Truman Capote knew it, one morning in 1959, when he read the brief account in the New York Times headed “WEALTHY FARMER, 3 OF FAMILY SLAIN”.

The reported details of the case were sparse, and tragic.  During the small hours of November 15, a person or persons unknown shot Kansas farmers Herb and Bonnie Clutter, and their two teenage children, Kenyon and Nancy, at close range, in the head.  The bound and gagged bodies were discovered later that Sunday morning by two of Nancy's friends, Susan Kidwell and Nancy Ewalt, on their way to church.  We’ll never know what Capote responded to in this initial description:  perhaps the whiff of “motiveless malignity” in the line “There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen”? Or the frisson suggested by Sheriff Robinson (“This is apparently the case of a psychopathic killer")?  In 1966 he told George Plimpton “There was nothing really exceptional about it; one reads items concerning multiple murders many times in the course of a year.”[1] But respond he did:

I said to myself: Well, why not this crime? The Clutter case. Why not pack up and go to Kansas and see what happens? Of course it was a rather frightening thought — to arrive alone in a small, strange town, a town in the grip of an unsolved mass murder. Still, the circumstances of the place being altogether unfamiliar, geographically and atmospherically, made it that much more tempting. Everything would seem freshly minted — the people, their accents and attitudes, the landscape, its contours, the weather. All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.

Two weeks later, along with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee, Truman Capote was on a train to St. Louis and his place in literary history.  His original journalistic intention was to research a piece for the New Yorker about the reaction of a small community to a violent event in their midst.  Holcomb, Kansas (pop. 270) represented a viable petri dish, inhabited by God-fearing, law-abiding, hard-working citizens; traditional, ordinary, good people. Even within this bastion of decency, the Clutter family stood out as upright and clean-living, as apple pie and picket fence as they come.  

At 48, Herbert was a prosperous and respected farmer of almost 4,000 acres, Chairman of the Kansas Conference of Farmers, and a prominent member of the local First Methodist Church. 16 year-old Nancy was a straight-A student, talented musician, stalwart 4-H member and all-round regular Southern Belle.  Her lanky younger brother, Kenyon, loved to tinker with farm machinery and wanted to be an engineer. Only Bonnie, who had borne her husband four children (two married older daughters lived elsewhere) and suffered severe depression, struck a sad note, but a recent diagnosis of spinal problems had given her new hope for a cure.  There was nothing about them that courted mass homicide, no adultery, no dodgy dealings, no residency in the wrong zip code.  By all reasonable expectations, they should all have lived out a happy, useful, three score and ten.  The tragedy of November 15 shattered those expectations and recalibrated the attitudes of those living for miles around.

At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again—those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust, in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.[2]

As he arrived in Holcomb, Capote didn’t care who the killers were, or if they were ever caught. He wasn’t interested in writing a straightforward account of investigation, capture and conviction.  He was feeling his way towards a new style of reporting, with the traits of what came to be known, over the following five years or so, as New Journalism.  He wanted to give readers an immersive, multi-perspective experience via the testimony and opinion of witnesses to the events.  He wanted to bring a compassionate, humanistic novelist’s eye to the details – the color of Nancy’s favorite dress, the one she was buried in, or the eventual fate of Babe, her favorite horse.  Rather than recounting the official, straight down the line, ‘this then that’ version, he wanted to construct a factually accurate narrative out of the corroboration of many small voices, so that readers could assess the evidence and arrive at the truth.

So, he bounced off the train and started interviewing the locals.  At first, the Holcomb shopkeepers, postal workers and teachers didn’t know what to make of the 5’ 3”, effeminate, lisping, richly dressed Capote.  Harper Lee was bemused by their reactions. “Those people had never seen anyone like Truman – he was like someone coming off the moon”.  She had to pave the way for him, using her soft Alabama charm (and sharp legal mind) to build bridges, and, in a lot of cases, conduct the interviews.  Years later, Bob Rupp (who was then 16 and Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend) recalled Lee asking most of the questions — "sometimes I wonder who really wrote that book"[3]

The odd couple from New York soon gained entry to Holcomb’s front parlors and dining rooms where Capote regaled his new friends with gossip about his Hollywood acquaintances.  In return, they told him how fond they’d been of the Clutters (“Of all the people in all the world…the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered"), and how they had reacted to the news (generally with “amazement, shading into dismay; a shallow horror sensation that cold springs of personal fear swiftly deepened”).  It was all very charming and cozy.  During the weeks leading to Christmas, 1959, Capote and Lee formed many lifelong friendships, and the signed mementoes they left as gifts are still treasured by the families today. 

Then, once more against all reasonable expectation, two suspects, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were apprehended in Las Vegas on December 30th, 1959. With the arrival in Garden City of these two key characters, Capote’s story gained its second and third acts.  The magazine article about lives cut short and grieving neighbors blossomed into a full-length book.  And not just any old book.  Capote declared that he had invented a brand new genre, the non-fiction novel.  It would require a combination of all his journalistic and novelistic sensibilities to write a comprehensive account of the crime and all its players.  Murder – as so many writers had found before him – has a natural narrative structure, but Capote believed the non-fiction novelist needs a very specific approach:

…it is necessary to have a 20/20 eye for visual detail - in this sense, it is quite true that one must be a "literary photographer," though an exceedingly selective one. But, above all, the reporter must be able to empathize with personalities outside his usual imaginative range, mentalities unlike his own, kinds of people he would never have written about had he not been forced to by encountering them inside the journalistic situation…It seems to me that most contemporary novelists, especially the Americans and the French, are too subjective, mesmerized by private demons; they're enraptured by their navels, and confined by a view that ends with their own toes. If I were naming names, I'd name myself among others. At any rate, I did at one time feel an artistic need to escape my self-created world. I wanted to exchange it, creatively speaking, for the everyday objective world we all inhabit.[4]
This November 15, take a moment to remember the Clutter family. In Cold Blood was never their memorial.

Thus began Capote’s sojourn in reality, away from the martinis-on-demand of Manhattan and the admiring laughter of his “swans”, the wives of the rich and powerful he cultivated as his bosom friends.  The honest farmers of Holcomb represented one level of the ‘everyday objective world’, normative in every way, a ‘traditional America’ still idealized by some – Caucasian church-going family units putting their faith in hard work and free enterprise.  Perry Smith and Dick Hickock represented another America entirely, of broken homes, of failed systems, of physical injury and petty crime, a deviancy still demonized today.

The Clutters could not speak for themselves, and their serene lives generated little of dramatic interest prior to their deaths.  Smith and Hickock, on the other hand, had nothing but time for explanations, and nothing but salacious stories to tell. When the killers were tried and found guilty (mainly by their own confession) of the Clutter murders, they were sentenced to death.  Today, the time served on Death Row can run to a quarter century, but in the 1960s the killers waited out a mere half decade.  The long appeals process suited Capote’s needs – at least, to begin with.  He gained the trust of the prisoners and spent hours interviewing them, listening to their personal histories, and their accounts of the days leading up to the murders and “the long ride” they embarked on afterwards, which took them all the way to Acapulco and brought them back, broke, to Vegas and handcuffs.

Post-trial interaction with Smith and Hickock gave Capote the main meat of his book.  The years of interrogation afforded him the greatest opportunity for creative freedom and also the greatest potential for controversy.  While the facts of the quadruple homicide, the capture of the killers and the trial were a matter of public record, the long hours spent in Smith’s and Hickock’s 7’ x 10’ Death Row cells were not, and he could shape them as he saw fit. Here, Capote proved his skill as an interviewer, gathering information about “the boys’” family lives, their hobbies and ambitions, and piecing together his psychological profile of each man.  Early on, Capote classified Hickock as a “very ordinary boy” with “a natural criminal instinct”.  He was much more interested in the wounded complexity of Smith.

There has been much conjecture about the relationship between Capote and Smith.  The author’s sympathy for Smith’s itinerant, loveless upbringing, so similar to his own, was palpable – both on the page and in the room.  Harper Lee said “every time Truman looked at Perry he saw his own childhood”.  Both men were short in stature, and liable to turn heads as they walked into a room because of their distinctive appearances.  Yet the two men’s social status couldn’t have been more different, one a wealthy talk-of-the-town writer, the other an ex-con drifter.  Capote certainly seemed mesmerized by Smith’s appearance, describing him as possessing

… a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful; a tilt of the head, a twist of the lips and the corrupt gypsy became the gentle romantic.
The book needs to be filed, and read, as memoir, that grey space between fiction and non-fiction, rather than categorized as cold, hard, fact.

Harold Nye, one of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents in charge of the case, suspected the attraction was sexual.  He claimed “they had become lovers in the penitentiary. I can't prove it, but they spent a lot of time up there in the cell, he spent a considerable amount of money bribing the guard to go around the corner, and they were both homosexuals…”[5].  No one will ever know the truth – it’s one of the many secrets contained in and denied by the book.  However, by 1965, whatever relationships there were had worn thin, from Capote’s perspective.  After six years of work he was desperate to publish.  But, until “the boys” had their date with the executioner, he felt he didn’t have an appropriately final ending.

At midnight on April 14, 1965, Capote got his last chapter, as Smith and Hickock were led to the gallows.  Capote spent the day wracked with indecision and guilt but finally agreed to witness the execution.  Smith bid him farewell with a kiss and an “Adios, amigo.”  Capote managed to control himself as Hickock took the long drop but fled from the building when it was Smith’s turn to die.

Then, after years of hype and expectation, it was Capote’s turn in the spotlight.  The fanfare that greeted In Cold Blood in 1966 has been described as ‘the closest thing the publishing world had seen to Beatlemania’ (James Wolcott in Vanity Fair). It made Capote internationally famous, and a very wealthy man.  When promoting his work, Capote insisted it wasn’t just another true crime exposé, it was Art.  He also insisted every word of it was true (“One doesn't spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions. People are so suspicious”).

Naturally, the debunkers were quick to latch on to his arrogance.  Phillip K. Tompkins hightailed it to Kansas on Capote’s trail, and his June, 1966, Esquire essay, In Cold Fact, refutes many of the assertions in the book, mostly involving the character and intelligence of Smith.  It was also easy to prove that the final scene of the book, a meeting between leading case investigator Al Dewey and a grown-up Sue Kidwell over the Clutter grave, was complete, rose-tinted fiction.  Tompkins concluded:

...He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. By insisting that “every word” of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim.

Over the years, In Cold Blood has undergone a lot of serious examination and come up short.  Critics include lawmakers involved in the case, such as Duane West, the lead prosecutor, who claims Capote drastically underplayed his role in the trial in favor of Logan Green, even misattributing West’s speeches to Green in the climactic courtroom scene.  West thinks his demotion was because he wasn’t clubbable enough. “I wasn't one of Capote's drinking buddies, so he kind of ignored me."[6]  KBI agent Harold Nye disagreed with Capote’s account of the arrest.  "What I did in Las Vegas, the people I talked to out there, it just was not written truthfully… It was probably an insignificant thing, except I was under the impression that book was going to be factual, and it was not; it was a fiction book."  Nye yearned to set the record straight with his own memoir, but died before he could complete it.  When his notes (including letters from Capote and original police notebooks and photographs from the 1960s) were listed for auction in July of this year, they attracted a lot of attention –  ownership is now disputed by the state of Kansas and surviving Clutter family members.[7]

In Cold Blood’s reputation as “immaculately factual” has become tarnished over the years.   Capote was criticized, over and over again, for the self-aggrandizing way in which he described his work, and for the way he inserted himself into the lives of Smith and Hickock as they sat, otherwise friendless, on Death Row.  Despite his claim that he kept himself out of the narrative (“I think the single most difficult thing in my book, technically, was to write it without ever appearing myself, and yet, at the same time, create total credibility”[8]), he sneaks in an appearance towards the end.  He casually describes Hickock “talking to a journalist with whom he corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit him.”  Then, as Hickock concludes his tirade with some comments about Perry (“…he’s so critical. Two-faced.  So jealous of every little thing”) the identity of the journalist becomes clear.

… Nobody ever comes to see him except you,” he said, nodding at the journalist, who was as equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock.

This was Capote’s ultimate fiction, that he was “equally well acquainted” with both of the prisoners, that he was a remote, impartial, nameless journalist whose connection with the two prisoners was purely professional, correspondence and "periodic visits".  His warped intimacy with Smith is nowhere as well exhibited as in the story Diana Vreeland, one of his “swans”, loved to relate.  She said Capote had told her that during one Death Row visit, “Perry grabbed Truman’s ballpoint pen and pressed it right against his eyeball, while he held him by the back of his head for something like fifteen minutes.  Can you imagine, poor Truman? But it was an act of love you see, as well as an act of terror.”  This incident did not, of course, make it into the book.

Despite all this, In Cold Blood remains one of the most popular literary works of the twentieth century and has never been out of print. It seems Capote was right on the money when he picked his subject ("the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time").  The story of its genesis is as fascinating as the book itself, and there are two movies (the Academy Award-laden Capote and the less-acclaimed but still very watchable Infamous) that deal with this period in Capote's life.  Nonetheless, the book needs to be filed, and read, as memoir, that grey space between fiction and non-fiction, rather than categorized as cold, hard, fact.  Perhaps if Capote had not been so insistent on subtitling his grand opus as “A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences” and gone with “A Fictionalized Reconstruction of A Terrible Crime”, he might have fared better with his subsequent writing career.  Thanks in part to the overwhelming success of his “non-fiction novel” he never finished anything of substance again.  It seemed as though, in placing soft-spoken, sensitive, yet savage Perry Smith at the heart of his book, he ripped out his own. He died in 1984, after years of hard partying and personal disappointments took their toll. 

This November 15, take a moment to remember the Clutter family. In Cold Blood was never their memorial.  In 2009, half a century after their brutal, senseless deaths, a plaque detailing their lives and achievements was unveiled in Holcomb Park (full text available here).  It makes no mention of Truman Capote.


[2] In Cold Blood: A True Account of A Multiple Murder And Its Consequences – Truman Capote (Random House, 1966)







Image property of Finney County Museum

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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