Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fifty years after the murder that inspired a literary masterpiece

Sunday was a morbid anniversary for the small rural town of Holcomb, Kansas. A half-century ago, on 15 November 1959, a ghastly crime was committed; the slaughter of the Clutter family in their farmhouse.

Human history is filled with crime, with violence, with horrific and unthinkable acts. Some are remembered, many are forgotten, at least by the 'public at large'. But this brutal crime, in a peaceful farming region in what is (correctly or not) thought of as a 'simpler time', has resonated through the decades, remaining in society's wider consciousness.

The main reason for that was an unusual New York writer, Truman Capote, who spied a short newspaper account of the killings, and decided to make the 1000-mile journey from his home to Holcomb to chronicle the impact of terrible violence on a small community. The result was IN COLD BLOOD, considered one of the greatest works in 20th century American literature, and a book that changed journalism, especially the way true-life tales were told in longer (full-length book) forms. It was one of the first, and the most influential, of what became known as 'non-fiction novels', and is a pioneering work of both true crime writing, and also 'New Journalism' in general.

Capote begins his story a couple of days before the murders. Using extensive interviews with the townsfolk, he puts together the last day of the family in astonishing detail. He had brought his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) along with him to Holcomb, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested not long after the murders, later executed, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book (including spending time with the murderers right up to and then witnessing their state-sanctioned hangings). As he says in the book, "Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives."

The story has been retold on television and film (multiple times), including a black and white 1967 movie (the year after the book came out, and two after the killers were executed) which was nominated for four Academy Awards, and then recently the Academy Award-winning Capote, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as well as Infamous, starring Toby Jones as Truman Capote. It has stayed in public consciousness, and seems to be one of those stories that many people are aware of.

Like many reviewers, I've even found myself giving nod's to Capote in reviews of crime novels such as DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn (which has a similar farmhouse family slaughter, although it brings in Satanism and many other things) and THE MURDER FARM by Andrea Maria Schenkel (which is actually inspired by a real-life 1920s farmhouse murder in Germany, pre-dating the events of IN COLD BLOOD).

Ed Pilkington in The Guardian has written a wonderful piece on the 50-year anniversary, including visiting the town, talking to locals, and looking back over the murders, the book, and the aftermath. I highly recommend reading his article, which was posted online overnight NZT (Monday 16 November UK time) - you can read it HERE.

I'd love to read your thoughts and comments about Capote, the book, the crime, the movies, Pilkington's article, non-fiction novels, or any other related thoughts.


  1. In Cold Blood is one of the Penguin classics I have brought but not yet had time to read. May have to bump it up the TBR pile.

  2. IN COLD BLOOD was one of the few books I had to read for high school English that I really loved and I don't normally like true crime. I do think he did a marvellous job of telling the stories, seemingly without embellishment (althuogh I guess I wouldn't know as his is really the only view there is). I've never seen any of the movie versions of the novel but did think Hoffman as Capote was quite brilliant and I meant to read the book again after seeing that movie but for some reason I never got around to it.

  3. I'm so glad you profiled In Cold Blood, Craig. It's such a compelling crime story, and Capote captures the town and the crimes just so well. It deserves its place among the list of "greats."