In Cold Blood: No Saints in Kansas

A Girl Detective Takes on a Quadruple Homicide

Just a brief post this week since I went a little off the rails with the long-form blogging last time.

I like Truman Capote’s writing and true-crime stories so much that it’s hard to stop elaborating.

The first In Cold Blood post discussed how the flamboyant Capote created a new literary genre, and last week’s explored his alleged efforts to snuff out a competing manuscript.

Never stop. But when the subject is In Cold Blood, there’s always more.

The tale of the brutal collision between the wholesome Clutter family and two dissolute criminals in Holcomb, Kansas, has been fascinating readers since the book hit the best-seller list in 1966.

Now, Soho Press has a new telling of the story coming out in November.

The novel No Saints in Kansas offers the tale through the eyes of the fictional Carly Fleming, a 15-year-old who recently moved to Kansas.

Carly was just beginning a friendship with Nancy “the town darling” Clutter when the teenager was murdered along with three members of her family on November 15, 1959.

Taking the initiative. In the early days of the investigation, detectives (in real life, too) suspected that Bobby Rupp, Nancy’s boyfriend, was the culprit who tied up, robbed, and shot her and her brother, Kenyon, and their parents, Herb and Bonnie.

Carly, who feels protective of Bobby, launches her own investigation in order to clear his name.

And speaking of going off the rails, Carly sneaks onto the murder scene, barges in on a press conference, and does her own ballistics tests.

She ends up grounded and arrested. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Hometown girl. If all this sounds like a novel for a teen audience, it’s because it is. Soho Press is publishing the book as young adult fiction.

Murderers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Smith later said that he liked Nancy Clutter and could see she was trying to put him at ease. He shot her anyway.

I enjoyed the telling just the same, especially because author Amy Brashear brings credibility to the characterizations.

Brashear and her family moved to Finney County, Kansas, in 1991, when she was 9.

That’s 33 years after the homicides, but locals hadn’t stopped talking about them, and probably never will.

Lose the halo. The author grew up around people old enough to have known the Clutters personally and still feel the psychic trauma caused by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock’s crime.

I found the novel engaging also because it seems to confirm something that I’ve always suspected: that Nancy Clutter wasn’t quite the perfect human being that Capote portrayed.

(“You’ve idolized that poor dead woman beyond all human recognition,” as Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote in The Heiress.)

That and other story elements made No Saints in Kansas a nice read.

Nice holiday gift. I caught a couple examples of anachronistic language in No Saints in Kansas. The first known use of “face-plant” was in 1982, according to Webster‘s, and I suspect people didn’t say “sounds like a plan” back in the 1950s.

But it’s not the author’s fault that this reader makes her living by pointing out errors; I’m an editor by day.

Author Amy Brashear

I’d recommend the book for any preteen or young teen reader who likes detective stories and true crime.

It’s a good introduction to a U.S. tragedy that Truman Capote made sure will never become arcane.

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

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.