In Cold Blood: Murders That Live On

New Variations on Truman Capote’s Storytelling

This week’s post starts a little sabbatical from Forensic Files to concentrate on some new developments related to the classic true-crime book In Cold Blood.

One of many editions

Truman Capote’s story of the slaughter of four members of a well-liked Kansas farming family in 1959 established a new literary genre: the nonfiction novel.

Cradle to gallows. Capote interviewed people connected with the Clutters, who were terrorized and shot during a home invasion — way before someone invented that term — waged by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, a couple of young ex-cons.

By interspersing that intelligence with information from interviews with investigators and Perry Smith, Capote created a 343-page narrative that included in-depth backstories of the characters, a moment-by-moment narrative of the murders, and coverage of the police work, convictions, and eventual executions of the killers.

Of the two truants, Smith by far had the more sympathetic story, or at least Capote portrayed it that way. The son of a Native American mother and white father who once had a happy marriage and worked together as rodeo performers, Smith suffered from a series of long-running tragedies.

Unexpected bromance. His mother sank into severe acoholism, her four kids lived in an orphanage for a time, and two of them committed suicide. An accident left Smith with mangled legs and constant pain.

Smith and Capote developed a bond during the time he was researching his book.

A Young Truman Capote

Capote, too, came from an unstable household damaged by alcoholism, but he found a way out and turned himself into a member of the glittering literati of his day.

He had early success with his novels Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948 when he was 23, and The Grass Harp three years later. His novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later the basis for the Audrey Hepburn movie of the same name, came out in 1958.

But In Cold Blood was his blockbuster.

I wasn’t able to find reliable data on the number of copies In Cold Blood has sold since it came out in 1966. One source estimates 3 million sold by 1971; another says 8 million by 1968.

Whatever the case, by now, it’s lots and lots.

There are at least three movies based the story.

Wholesome, meet dissolute. My favorite, the 2005 release Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, portrays the author’s efforts to make a literary conquest out of the quadruple homicide that rocked the Kansas town.

I’ve seen the film about the same number of times I’ve read the book In Cold Blood, at least four. The story of the unlikely face-off between the high-functioning 4-H-meeting-attending Clutter family and the two margin-dwelling assailants makes for an unusual American tableau.

The means of storytelling was a precursor to books such as Sebastian Junger’s 1997 best seller, The Perfect Storm, which featured a reconstructed story of a commercial fishing boat that disappeared.

Fortunately, Capote’s book probably will never vanish from the public consciousness, and two new developments related to the story have recently emerged.

First, information about a manuscript that told the story of the Clutter homicides through the eyes of Dick Hickock has leaked out. A seven-part sparsely viewed story about the manuscripts exists on YouTube. I will give it a watch and report back.

Smith (top) and Hickock

Fresh retelling. And coming up in November, Soho Press is publishing No Saints in Kansas, a novel told from the perspective of a fictional friend to the real-life Nancy Clutter, the dynamic 16-year-old at the center of In Cold Blood.

The author, Amy Brashear, grew up near Holcomb.

No Saints in Kansas is written for a teenage audience, but I’m going to give it a read myself and report back on it just the same. It might make a nice holiday gift for a nascent true-crime fan in the family.

That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. R.R.

Update: Read part 2.

4 thoughts on “In Cold Blood: Murders That Live On”

  1. Wow what a great post! I read the book but did not realize its place in literature. You also bring out that great ideas are everywhere. Telling a story from the point of view of the daughter is a perfect example. I enjoy FF posts, but departures just as much or, in this case, even more!

  2. Both the book and the movie In Cold Blood are stunning. Reminded of the theory in John Waters film Female Trouble that people are more attractive when they are committing a crime. Great article!

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