Thursday 26 April 2018

Books: 'In Cold Blood' revisited 50 years on

Crime: In Cold Blood Truman Capote Penguin, pbk, 352 pages, €13.50

American novelist Truman Capote (left), dressed in an overcoat, glasses, and hat, stands on a lawn near American actors Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (right), both dressed in character, while on location filming In Cold Blood
American novelist Truman Capote (left), dressed in an overcoat, glasses, and hat, stands on a lawn near American actors Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (right), both dressed in character, while on location filming In Cold Blood

November 1959, and a headline buried deep inside the New York Times simply read: “Wealthy farmer, 3 of Family Slain.”

Underneath were a few brief paragraphs telling in un-sensational tones that Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, had been murdered on their ranch in a remote area of Kansas.

In New York, Truman Capote read the report, then re-read it. He was unsettled by what he later called its “strange ordinariness”. The following morning, he turned to the story again, sensing that between the lines lay a collision of American Dream with American Nightmare. Encouraged by his New Yorker editor, William Shawn, he made hurried travel plans. He would  leave behind the social whirl of Park Avenue, head to the lonely plains of Holcomb in the mid-west, and try to make sense of it all.

“It was a rather frightening thought,” he recalled “Still, the circumstances of the place being altogether unfamiliar, geographically and atmospherically, made it that much more tempting. Everything would seem freshly minted - the people, their accents and attitudes, the landscape, its contours, the weather.

All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.”

But he couldn’t do it alone.

His travelling companion was his Alabama childhood friend and fellow writer, Nelle Harper Lee.  The culmination of that literary journey, six years later, was In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences. It was first serialised in the New Yorker in September 1965, and remains one of the most controversial ‘true crime’ novels of all time.

By the time of the Kansas murders, Capote was already a celebrated writer, but now keen to combine his journalistic skill with his talent as a story teller.

Norman Mailer, with whom he then shared a friendship alternating between respect and rivalry, had said of 1958’s Breakfast at Tiffanys that Capote “wrote the best sentences of anyone in our generation. I would not have changed two words.”

Newspaper reports of murders were an everyday occurrence, but in Capote’s creative imagination, this seemingly motiveless crime in the mid-west was the perfect frame for a new literary form. His book would read like the crime novel he had set out to write, but with one crucial difference, as he as described:

“Every word of it would be true from beginning to end.” He drew on the stacks of interviews, research, conversations (without a tape-recorder as he claimed he had 95% accurate recall of all that was said), court records and the evidence of his own eyes. He was confident from the start of the timelessness of his subject matter, “The human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”

Vanity Fair reported last April that Harvey Weinstein has bought the rights to create a new TV series of the book. But it’s the story behind the creation of In Cold Blood, as much as the book itself, which has received considerable attention in the intervening 50 years. The best known are film treatments: the 2005 Capote, claiming an Oscar for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman; and the aptly named Infamous, the following year, with Toby Jones in the author role.

The real-life role of the much-in-the-news-right -now Harper Lee makes that back story as compelling as ever.

In late November 1959, Lee had just submitted her own novel To Kill A Mockingbird to her publishers, and at a loose end, travelled to Kansas on Capote’s invite. She spent two months there, researching and interviewing locals in the small, strange town of Holcomb, still in the grip of the then unsolved and inexplicable mass murder of the Clutter family.  Lee received a dedication in the book for her efforts. But she eventually took issue with Capote’s manipulation of his relationship with both the killers, as well as his fictionalising certain facts in the book.

Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were caught and convicted of the murders in January 1960, ending up on Death Row in Kansas State Penitentiary. There has been speculation about an attraction of sorts between the openly gay author and his criminal confidants, particularly Smith, on his visits and in correspondence during their time on Death Row. All unsubstantiated, but Capote’s coaxing of details of the crime firsthand from the condemned men was viewed as unethical, leading to his own condemnation in certain quarters.

Timing was also a factor in the criticism in that he was cashing in:  the serialisation came just five months after the execution of Smith and Hickock, Capote listed as an authorised witness to their hanging.  Other speculation, also unproven, claims the reason why the friendship between Lee and Capote took such a downturn was because he was miffed that In Cold Blood, unlike To Kill A Mockingbird,  did not receive a Pulitzer Prize,  particularly as its been suggested by Capote himself that he had a hand in the writing of her earlier novel.

While In Cold Blood could not have been written without Harper Lee’s research assistance, it is undoubtedly Capote’s book, in the mastery of the language, the matter-of-fact tone, and the diversity of humanity he conveys – including perpetrators as well as victims.

“I worked for a year on the notes before I ever wrote one line,” Capote said just after publication. “And when I wrote the first word, I had done the entire book in outline, down to the finest detail.”

The vulnerability of the doomed family haunts from that unsettling first line; he describes remote Holcomb as “a place other Kansans call ‘out there’.”

Perfect sentences reveal more than their carefully chosen words: “Not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

The book’s publication was to end Capote’s life, at least in the creative sense.

The celebrity he gained in the mid-1960s was remarkable, but led to a steady decline through drink and drugs. He died in 1984, never repeating the success of In Cold Blood. He was profoundly affected by the revelatory experience of what had happened in Kansas and its consequences. Those who have been drawn to the story can understand why, as in that 1966 interview he said:

“I'm still very much haunted by the whole thing. I have finished the book, bu in a sense I haven't finished it: it keeps churning around in my head. It particularizes itself now and then, but not in the sense that it brings about a total conclusion. It's like ... the echo that's meaningless and yet it's there: one keeps hearing it all the time.”

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