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Unsettling, uncomfortable account of a real crime – The Clutter Murders of 1959

Truman Capote’s 1966 account of a notorious, barely motive-driven rural multiple murder which took place in Kansas in 1959 catapulted him into the best seller lists and celebrity status.

An upstanding, hard-working family from Holcomb, a small community in the wheat-plains of western Kansas, were brutally murdered by person or persons unknown, in November 1959. The Clutter family, Herb, church-going, teetotal dairy cattle-farmer, his rather delicate but equally upstanding wife Bonnie, and his two children, 16 year old Nancy, vivacious, popular, responsible, admired, and her bookish 15 year old brother Kenton were all shot at point-blank range, having previously been tied up. Herb Clutter also had his throat cut before being shot.

Inevitably, investigation first turned to possible personal and local motive, but there was no evidence at all to suggest this. The community was a tight-knit, respectable, co-operative one, and all the Clutters were warmly regarded by their colleagues, peers, friends, family and neighbours

The hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbours and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was amongst themselves

The conclusion was that this might have been a burglary which went wrong. The idea of this definitely ruled out local involvement as everyone knew that Clutter did not keep money or valuables in the house, but banked it

The crime seemed to point towards something of a growing trend – murder without any real personal motive. There have always been such, in times past, but, for obvious reasons, they were more likely to take place in crowded cities, where perpetrators could quickly vanish amongst the hordes. Such crimes in isolated areas, carried out by perpetrators completely unknown, where victim and murderer had no direct connection with each other, must have been comparatively rare before owning cars became common, so that going on the run and being able to hide anywhere, became easily possible.

The perpetrators of this crime, after an intense investigation, were found to be a couple of small time crooks, who had met whilst serving time, far away from the scene of the crime. The successful solving of the crime, not to mention the capture of the pair, also depended on chance as much as skill, and the existence of mass-media (radio, TV) to highlight awareness of the crime and the search. The motive was indeed a robbery gone wrong, with the murderers, neither of whom had ever met Clutter, unaware that this rich man did not have a safe in his house (as they had assumed he would)

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfiction novel,” as I thought of it.

Capote, quoted in a 1966 interview about his novel for The New York Times

Truman Capote’s account of the case, originally serialised in The New Yorker, was rather a literary, ground-breaking one. The book was extensively researched from documents and interviews, but Capote structured this like a converging story, rather than a linear account. The structure, the language and the shaping are that of story, not journalistic reportage. Indeed, levelled against the book was criticism (particularly locally) that some dialogue had been invented, and small human touches and potent images had been invented.

Interestingly, his researcher on the book was his friend, and later, admired author in her own right, Harper Lee.  She is one of the two people Capote dedicates the book to.

The crime was indeed a gory one, but Capote withholds the gory details until near the end of the book, Instead, he paints a low-key, un-histrionic , unheroic, un-villainous picture of all the individuals associated with the case – this includes the victims, the murderers and all connected in the investigation, bringing to justice, and the community in which these events happened.

The author avoids operatic, overblown rhetoric. The reader (well, this one) has the sense of an author listening for a way to tell a shocking story in a simple, measured way, allowing the events themselves to be revealed in a way which suggests they have objective existence, and are not driven by authorial agenda. Nonetheless, the choices he made do of course shape the reader’s own perceptions. This is not a mere recounting of facts, but the reader is not being punched by the writer’s persona. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Capote did feel a kind of fascination with one of the perpetrators, whose status as half Cherokee, half-Irish, child of a broken marriage, whose mother was an alcoholic, and who spent part of his childhood in a brutal care home, marked his card, somewhat from the start. A classic outsider who FELT like an outsider to himself. Capote, himself an outsider, clearly felt some kind of – if not sympathy, than an identification of ‘outsiderness’

My feeling is that for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work. Ideally. Once the narrator does appear, he has to appear throughout, all the way down the line, and the I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn’t. 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.

Unlike a more modern trend in some ‘true crime’ writing, Capote avoids a ramping up of the gory details of the undoubtedly gory crime. He is not trying to titillate or be gratuitous, Instead, there is a cool restraint. There is of course no ‘excuse’ for the crime, but there is a recognition that the fact that these types of crime occur shows ‘something’ about human nature. Because the writer does not go the route of ‘aberrant, demonic, despicable, bestial monsters’ the reader is uncomfortably forced to acknowledge this too is the possibility of human choice, human behaviour.

And I was left (with no solution) with a kind of puzzle. This is a crafted work of art, and the account of a crime which clearly fascinated as well as horrified. And Capote’s book also gave rise to a film. However………there has been (continuing) criticism of book and film by residents of Holcomb at the time and their descendants. Coping with such a tragedy in their midst, difficult enough, at the time, and beyond, but the critical and commercial success of Capote’s work has kept a kind of searchlight on their lives, perhaps making moving on a far more difficult journey

Perry was always asking me: Why are you writing this book? What is it supposed to mean? I don’t understand why you’re doing it. Tell me in one sentence why you want to do it. So I would say that it didn’t have anything to do with changing the readers’ opinion about anything, nor did I have any moral reasons worthy of calling them such–it was just that I had a strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art.

“That’s really the truth, Perry,” I’d tell him, and Perry would say, “A work of art, a work of art,” and then he’d laugh and say, “What an irony, what an irony.” I’d ask what he meant, and he’d tell me that all he ever wanted to do in his life was to produce a work of art. “That’s all I ever wanted in my whole life,” he said. “And now, what was happened? An incredible situation where I kill four people, and you’re going to produce a work of art.” Well, I’d have to agree with him. It was a pretty ironic situation.

Capote by Jack Mitchell, Wiki Commons

The ‘blue’ quote is from the book itself, the green quotes are all from the New York Times interview, which is fascinating. Capote Interview with George Plimpton of the New York Times

 The book was 6 years in the writing, beginning before the case was solved, taking in the investigation, the whole legal process, and, later on going interviews and correspondence with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, during the years they spent on Death Row whilst the due process of law and appeals by the lawyers for the defence continued. Its ‘wrap’ is the expected one.

In Cold Blood Amazon UK
In Cold Blood Amazon USA