- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005


on Truman Capote’s


In mid-November, 1959, 35-year-old Truman Capote found his attention arrested by a small item in the New York Times describing the discovery in a farmhouse near a Kansas town of the bodies of an affluent farmer, his wife, teenaged son and daughter. All had been shot to death; the man had also had his throat slashed. There were no suspects in the case. Capote knew right away that this was something about which he wanted to write. That moment of decision and the agonizing, years-long process of research and discovery it unleashed are the subject of the brilliantly acted and engrossing new movie “Capote.”

Seeing it may prompt viewers to revisit “In Cold Blood,” the book that grew out of Truman Capote’s reporting on the case for The New Yorker magazine. Subtitled “A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences,” it was a sensational bestseller when it came out in 1965. It also created a genre, the nonfiction novel, for Capote wrote about the lives of the perpetrators and victims of this terrible crime with the ear for language, the eye for the telling detail and the dramatic flair of a novelist. Contemporary writers such as Sebastian Junger, Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer and Simon Winchester are his heirs.

In the movie, Capote’s singular and out-sized personality takes center stage; from “In Cold Blood” he is completely absent. The story is told with a clean, restrained style quite without the attention-grabbing theatrics of the persona of the movie (and real life) Capote. Quickly, the author sets the scene. “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas,” he begins, “a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” Three pages later we learn that nothing extraordinary had ever happened in Holcomb until the November night when “certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises — on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.” Those sounds were the four shotgun blasts that “all told, ended six human lives.”

Early chapters alternate descriptions of the victims of the crime on the last day of their lives with the actions that same Saturday of the two young men who would kill them. We meet 48-year-old Herbert Clutter, “the master of River Valley Farm” and “the community’s most widely known citizen” due to his wealth and his active involvement in his church (First Methodist) and the Kansas Conference of Farm Organizations. He was respected in town; he was also liked. His only real worry was his wife, Bonnie. She had been an “on-and-off psychiatric patient the last half-dozen years” and, on the November weekend in question, had just returned from two weeks at a Wichita clinic feeling hopeful that, perhaps, she was on the road to recovery.

The Clutters’ two older daughters, one married, one about to be, no longer lived at home but the family also included 16-year-old Nancy and 14-year-old Kenyon. They were good kids. Nancy spent her last day teaching a neighbor’s child to bake a pie, running errands for her mother, putting final touches to the red velvet bridesmaid’s dress she had made and planned to wear at her sister’s wedding and watching television with her boyfriend, Bobby Rupp. Kenyon spent his finishing the cedar chest he had made for the bride-to-be and attending a meeting of the 4-H Club with his dad.

While these things were happening in Holcomb, two young men were servicing their 1949 Chevrolet, studying a map of Mexico, purchasing rubber gloves and rope and driving toward Holcomb. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were both ex-cons but other than that their backgrounds were quite different. Hickock had grown up in a seemingly happy home near Kansas City. He was a good student and earned nine letters in high school sports. But his family was, as he described it, “semi poor;” he couldn’t afford college. Instead, he got married, had some kids and went to work as a car mechanic. His marriage went bad, he remarried, started drinking, writing bad checks and stealing and ended up in prison.

Perry Smith, on the other hand, came from a hideous, unstable home life with an alcoholic mother and a violent father. At 16 he joined the Merchant Marine; later he enlisted in the Army and served in Korea. But he started to get into fights, was court martialed twice (once for, in his words, “demolishing a Japanese caf”) and, eventually, began the stealing that landed him in the Kansas State penitentiary where he met Hickock.

The chemistry between them provedtobe deadly; information they learned from a fellow inmate led them to Holcomb. Both men were given psychiatric tests at the time of their trial for murder and were found to be of above average intelligence and competent but each man’s sense of connection to other human beings had been fatally damaged. Hickock, whose distraught mother visited him regularly during his long sojourn on death row, went to the gallows coolly insouciant, without ever expressing remorse for what he had done. Smith was the more violent of the two but he was also the more complex and sensitive. Offered the chance to speak at his execution, he calmly expressed opposition to the death penalty and belated, awkward contrition. “Maybe I had something to contribute,” he said wistfully, “something … .”

The cost exacted on Truman Capote of his long relationship with the killers (they were quickly captured and convicted but, as their case went through various appeals, spent almost 2000 days on death row) is conveyed in the movie but it is not the subject of the book which ends on an affirmative, elegiac note. Having just watched the killers die, Alvin Dewey, the Kansas FBI agent who investigated the crime, finds himself thinking back to the spring day a year or so before when he had gone to the Holcomb cemetery to tend his father’s grave and had encountered there Susan Kidwell, home from college and visiting the burial place of the girl who had been her best friend, Nancy Clutter. She tells Dewey how happy she is at school and that Nancy’s former boyfriend has gotten married. After they chat a few minutes, she turns to leave saying “Nice to have seen you, Mr. Dewey.”

The movie, based on a biography of Truman Capote by Gerald Clarke, makes clear that the years he devoted to this case took a toll on the author, who never completed another book after it and, as he aged, increasingly succumbed to isolation and alcoholism. But rereading “In Cold Blood” makes clear that what touched and fascinated Capote about this story was not just the lurid details and criminal pathology he spent so much energy uncovering. He connected with and vividly portrayed the goodness he found in Perry Smith and in the small community of Holcomb — the simple, decent Clutter family who he never met; Judge Tate who heard the case and, thinking the jury would deliberate longer, had slipped out to feed his horses and had to be called back to hear the verdict; Mrs. Meier, the sheriff’s wife who fixed special foods for Perry Smith; Bobby Rupp, the teenaged boy who loved Nancy.

Bobby recalled Nancy telling him about how one summer she had visited the source of the Arkansas River where her father had caught a trout. “It had stayed with Bobby,” Capote writes, “her memory of the river’s source, and since her death … . Well, he couldn’t explain it but whenever he looked at the Arkansas, it was for an instant transformed, and what he saw was not a muddy stream meandering across the Kansas plains, but what Nancy had described — a Colorado torrent, a chilly, crystal trout river speeding down a mountain valley. That was how Nancy had been: like young water — energetic, joyous.”

Perhaps it was a sense of how far his own life had taken him from small town simplicity as much as the grim stories he had painstakingly coaxed from Hickock and Smith that poisoned Capote’s later years. Whatever the case, “In Cold Blood” testifies to its author’s skill as a reporter, his extraordinary literary gifts and to his enormous capacity for human sympathy. If American nonfiction is today at least as vibrant a literary art as fiction (and some would say it is more so), it can largely be traced back to Capote’s groundbreaking work.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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