In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences
by Truman Capote
The Modern Library, New York, 1992
The book that changed true crime journalism, first published as a serial in the New Yorker in the fall of 1965, began as a one-column story on page 39 of the New York Times dated November 16, 1959. It read “Wealthy Farmer, 3 Of Family Slain.”
The victims were members of the Clutter family, proud owners of the River Valley Ranch, outside the town of Holcomb, Kansas. The father Herbert, the mother Bonnie, their son Kenyon, fifteen, and the youngest daughter, Nancy, sixteen.
Two weeks later Truman Capote, a writer from New York City, was on his way to Kansas. Capote’s interest in the murders lead to an extended investigation. He spent the next six years interviewing people from the farming community of Holcomb, friends and family of the murder victims, policemen and agents involved in the investigation, and eventually the murderers, Richard Eugene Hickock, and Perry Edward Smith as well as their families.
Capote wished to create a new form of literature, something based in fact that used the arts of fiction. He worked in a way no journalist had every attempted, and by the time the articles appeared, had created a work that mesmerized the country.
He interviewed the people who had first entered the house on that quiet Sunday morning, including Nancy’s best friend, Susan.
“So I did,” said Susan in a statement made at a later date. “I called the house and let the phone ring–at least I had the impression it was ringing–oh, a minute or more. Nobody answered, so Mr. Ewalt suggested we go to the house and try to “wake them up.” But when we got there–I didn’t want to do it. Go inside the house. I was frightened, and I didn’t know why, because it never occurred to me–well, something like that just doesn’t. But the sun was so bright, everything looked too bright and quiet..”
Capote captured people’s thoughts and carefully put them into words. Here is Andy Erhart, a friend of the family;
Of those present, none had been closer to the Clutter family than Andy Erhart. Gentle, genially dignified, a scholar with work-calloused hands and a sunburned neck, he’d been a classmate of Herb’s at Kansas State University. “We were friends for thirty years,” he said some time afterwards, and during those decades Erhart had seen his friend evolve from a poorly paid County Agricultural Agent into one of the region’s most widely known and respected ranchers: “Everything Herb had, he earned–with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man, as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life.” But that life, and what he made of it–how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky.
And Capote was ingratiating, he gained people’s trust, most significantly the trust of Smith and Hickock. In Cold Blood recreates the wild cross-country journey they took after the murders.
Approximately four hundred miles east of where Arthur Clutter then stood, two young men were sharing a booth in the Eagle Buffet, a Kansas City diner. One–narrow-faced, and with a blue cat tattooed on his right hand–had polished off several chicken salad sandwiches and now was eying his companion’s meal: an untouched hamburger and a glass of root beer in which three aspirin were dissolving.
“Perry, baby,” Dick said, “you don’t want that burger. I’ll take it.”
Perry shoved the plate across the table. “Christ, can’t you let me concentrate?”
“You don’t have to read it fifty times.”
The reference was to a front-page article in the November 17 edition of the Kansas City Star.
In Cold Blood is probably the best account of an American crime ever written and the model for all future true-crime books. It conveys the environment created by these murders, the impact on those who suffered the after effects and the life stories of the two men who committed the murders in cold blood.
For wonderful insight into the author and his creative process see Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Banned, but later reinstated after community protests at the Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, Ga. (2000). The controversy began in early 1999 when a parent complained about sex, violence, and profanity in the book that was apart of an Advanced Placement English Class. Source: 2004 Banned Books Resource Guide by Robert P. Doyle.