Something a bit different today for Mystery Monday: a fictionalization of a true crime drama that details accurately (although there has been some controversy about that) the events leading up to the cold-blooded murder of the Clutter family, father, mother, 17-year-old Nancy, and 16-year-old Kenyon in their farmhouse on the outskirts of Holcomb, Kansas, Nov. 15th, 1959.
Truman Capote takes us into the minds of the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, how they met, planned, and executed what was intended to be a robbery without witnesses, how it all went awry, and what they did after the event. Hickock dropped Smith off at his hotel, then went home to his parents farmhouse, ate dinner, and slept the rest of the afternoon while his father and brother watched a ballgame on TV. His father said at the time, it was unusual for Dick to miss a game on the TV. Capote gets into the minds of members of the tight-knit community of Holcomb, and friends of the Clutters in nearby Garden City, where the family attended the Methodist church. He takes us behind the work of the detectives trying to solve these murders into their family lives, and their painstaking determination to solve a murder scene that revealed almost no clues.
Despite the horror of the senseless, brutal murders of a family full of protestant work ethic and innocence of the criminal element of society, Capote’s telling masterfully conveys the tragedy without ramming the sickening details down our throats. It is a calm retelling, well-organized in a manner that fills the reader with empathy and pathos for the community, admiration for the way the pieces of the case against Perry and Dick come together, and the feeling that justice was served. There is even a modicum of sadness for the murderers, and some understanding of the twisted way in which their lives evolved to be such a waste. But the sense of loss is reserved in its entirety for the Clutter family, the remaining two older sisters, one married, the other at university, and the grieving town.
Even coming to this novelization in command of the facts of the story, one cannot help being drawn into the compelling prose and the attempt to convey the complex workings of the callous regard for life held by these criminals, and others with whom they shared the 2nd floor of the Segregation and Isolation Building of the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men.
In a south section of the prison compound there stands a curious little building: a dark two-storied building shaped like a coffin. . . Among the inmates, the lower floor is known as The Hole — the place to which difficult prisoners, the “hardrock” troublemakers, are now and then banished. The upper story is reached by climbing a circular iron staircase; at the top is Death Row.
The early part of the novel alternates the stories of the four members of the family against the stories of Smith and Hickock; afterwards, it juxtaposes the efforts of friends to cope, killers to evade, and detectives to track. It is a seemingly long process. Capote spent countless hours over many years conducting interview. First, the friends of each of the victims, then, the criminals as they awaited trial, followed by several years of appeals, right up to their executions. There are, mercifully, no pictures in the book, benign or otherwise. Capote’s prose is clear and precise enough to convey the tranquility of the Clutters’ River Valley Farm; it is deft enough to put the more tragic images into our minds without the horrific reality of photos. There is speculation that the ending, where detective Dewey meets Susan Kidwell, a friend Nancy Clutter had planned to attend the University of Kansas with, at the gravesite of the Clutters: four graves gathered under a single gray stone, and quietly discusses how life has moved on, is pure fiction. We can only guess. But it is a nice way to close the book: Sue is at K.U., Bobby Rupp has married, the killers have been executed, and the Clutter graves are left “[under] the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat”. * * * * *
Teaser Tuesdays, about the book
Capote, a movie review
Infamous, a movie about Truman Capote and the Clutter murders