In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.'”

 

-Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”

 

I believe that part of the roots of my interest in the genre of historical true crime is that I come from that very area – Western Kansas. I grew up “out there”, on the “high wheat plains”. I was quite a ways removed from the Clutter murders – my family moved there, about an hour from that lonely, tree-lined property where the quadruple murders took place in 1984, a full 25 years after November 15, 1959.

(The story of the Clutter Murders can be found here.)

I can clearly remember The tree-line road that leads to the former Clutter home.my first introduction to the Clutter murders – we were in Holcomb for a forensics (drama) meet. There were only a few of us on my high school team, but somehow we managed to talk the bus driver into driving down the former Clutter driveway, which is within view of the high school.

It is easy for me to imagine the Clutter family at work and at play because my own family, and my parents’ families in particular, were Kansas families that very much mirrored the Clutters not only in age but in being a farming family that hired help, was popular in the community and children who were very active in church and school. Either my Father or my Mother could have been a member of the Clutter family, so close was the resemblance.

What IS hard to image the horror that happened there. Since I grew up in a nearly identical small, western-Kansas town, it is hard for me to imagine – and often brings a smile to my face doing so – such a “colorful” character as Truman Capote trying to blend into the 1960’s Kansas scenery.

Capote’s 1965 classic “non-fiction novel” was the grandaddy of a new genre called “New Journalism”, a compelling cross between journalism and literature. He paints with broad strokes what I would agree is a mostly fair account of the at-home, simplistic lifestyle of rural Kansas in the mid-20th Century – with only a few points where the descriptions don’t ring true.

And for good reason. Capote spent six years on the book – spending an entire year doing research before ever putting a word of the novel to paper. In an interview with George Plimpton, he noted:

My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling. All my research. Hundreds of letters. Newspaper clippings. Court records – the court records almost fill two trunks… I have some of the personal belongings – all of Perry’s because he left me everything he owned; it was miserably little, his books, written in and annotated; the letters he received while in prison. . .not very many. . .his paintings and drawings…I think I may burn it all … The book is what is important. It exists in its own right. The rest of the material is extraneous, and it’s personal. What’s more, I don’t really want people poking around in the material of six years of work and research. The book is the end result of all that, and it’s exactly what I wanted to do from it.”

It is important to remember that this book is also an excellent study in justice in 1960’s America. Bringing Perry Smith and Richard Hitchcock to justice was at the same time a long and yet swift process, leading to their hanging on April 14, 1965. Capote hits on all cylinders in his tale of their trials and final days in a Kansas prison.

Interest in the book has increased in the previous year thanks to the move “Capote“, a movie based on the story of Capote’s descent into madness that may or may not have been the result of encompassing himself in the Clutter murders and Smith and Hitchcock trials. It is a good accompanying piece to “In Cold Blood”, and I do recommend re-reading the book before seeing the movie, if you have not already.

Needless to say, this is a book I not only recommend, but would say is the first place to start if you are interested in historical true crime. It is the most significant book of the genre, and is important to the understanding of the origins of the true crime genre itself.

Published in: on September 12, 2006 at 1:59 am  Comments (11)  

Welcome to those interested in the Black Dahlia…

I’ve been noticing that many of the visitors to this website are searching for information on The Black Dahlia.

So I’m curious – if you’ve read a book on the Black Dahlia, which do you think hits closest to the truth?

I haven’t read all that many books on the subject – maybe three. I’m REALLY interested to see what everyone else thinks is the most likely scenario. Leave me a comment!

Published in: on September 11, 2006 at 6:33 pm  Comments (9)  

Two historical true crime movies coming to theatres.

There are two movies opening that may be of interest to those who enjoy historical true crime.

The Black Dahlia  opens September 15. It’s based on the James Elroy novel, which is based on the Black Dahlia murder (which I have written about previously in the blog.)

Have you seen this movie? I’d love to hear if you liked it or not-I’m still debating whether I should see it in the theatres or not.

(For more information on the Black Dahlia case, please see this excellent crimelibrary.com article. )

The second film that is coming to theatres is Hollywoodland, the story of the original “Superman”, George Reeves.

This movie is based on the very entertaining book Hollywood Kryptonite, by Nancy Schoenberger.

(For more information on this infamous hollywood mystery, see this Wikipedia overview of George Reeves’ life and death.)

The George Reeves murder/suicide remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring mysteries, and I highly recommend the book on the subject, which I will likely review here after I reread it.

Seen the movie? Let me know if it’s worth seeing!

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 3:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Another blog note.

I apologize for the lack of blogging in the last three weeks as, while visiting my parents, I managed to spend some time in the hospital and most of the rest of the time trying to heal an ulcer.

But I’m back home now, and will resume blogging as soon as I read something worthy of review.

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

A blog note…

I will be leaving on Saturday for Kansas (from Illinois), where I will be attending a funeral, attending to some wedding details and spending three weeks with my folks. Blogging will be light, since, while I will have a computer, I will be sharing it.

In the meantime, I have a couple of books that I’m reading, including “Black Dahlia Avenger” by Steve Hodel, which I am rereading. Hopefully I’ll find a few other books lying around here at the house to take with me, otherwise it’s going to be a rather dull three weeks.

Published in: on August 10, 2006 at 5:23 am  Comments (3)  

Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic Killer by Steven Nickel

Marion Bardsley, writing on Cleveland during the time of the Torso murders (also known as the Kingsbury Run murders) in an article at crimelibrary.com…

“Kingsbury Run cuts across the east side of Cleveland like a jagged wound, ripped into the rugged terrain as if God himself had tried to disembowel the city. At some points it is nearly sixty feet deep, a barren wasteland covered with patches of wild grass, yellowed newspapers, weeds, empty tin cans and the occasional battered hull of an old car left to rust beneath the sun. Perched upon the brink of the ravine, narrow frame houses huddle close together and keep a silent watch on the area.

“Angling toward downtown, the Run empties out into the cold, oily waters of the Cuyahoga River. There, dingy banks sprout a concrete and metal forest of drawbridges, storage tanks, and blackened factory buildings that flourish in the yellow sulphurous fumes and the fiery glow of the blast furnaces.”

(This article can be found at crimelibrary.com through this link. I recommend reading it if you’re not familiar with the Torso killings.)

It is against this background that one of the most mysterious chapters in the history of Cleveland, Ohio would take shape.

Torso, however, is almost misleadingly not as much about the murders as the roller coaster career of Elliot Ness.

Ness, who is best known for his work with The Untouchables-a small band of FBI agents who helped take down Al Capone. Following this success, Ness took a job as the Director of Public Safety of Cleveland, where he immediately made an impact by making a HUGE overhaul of the extremely corrupt police department.

However, despite his very public successes in the pursuit of corruption, Ness was unable to solve the series of dismemberments that held the city captive in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This would ultimately lead to a slide of massive proportions – to the point that Ness was living it almost utter poverty.

Unfortunately, he would die shortly before an author he was working with made Ness-and the Untouchables-a household name.

Even so, the Torso murders would remain a dark mark on an otherwise stellar career. What was it about the discovery of the remains of the Torso killer’s 12 known victims that would make it so difficult to figure out how those crimes actually happened?

Part of the issue was that the idea of a “stranger killing” was nearly unheard of. Police spun their wheels trying to find links between any of the victims that were identified, with no success.

This book is a great read. However, the title is misleading, as I have mentioned. While the details of the Torso murders are given well and are well tied to where Ness was in his career, there’s very little discussion of possible suspects.

To be fair, though, it IS a great read on the life of Elliot Ness, and is therefore a book I would recommend. In that respect, it is a more important book on American History than it would seem at first glance.

Published in: on August 7, 2006 at 3:50 am  Leave a Comment  

Murder At The Brown Palace: A True Story Of Seduction & Betrayal, by Dick Kreck

“This is just to let you know that someone knows a great deal. Therefore, under no circumstances, telephone me or try to communicate with me in any way. Everything is finally and absolutely off…”

With those words, Isabel Springer set into motion a drama that would end tragically for all involved – a high society murder, the downfall of a society girl and the tragic death of an innocent bystander.

(Want to know the whole story? Read it here!)

Isabel, recently divorced from her first husband, marries John W. Springer (who owned land that is now known as Highlands Ranch near Denver-he could have been a tremendously rich man, you know, if he could have lived to be 150. :)) who is 20 years her senior.

Little does Springer know that his sprightly wife was not only carrying on an affair with a man, named ouis Sylvester “Tony” von Phul from her hometown of St. Louis, but he was also unaware that she was getting cozy with a family friend named Harold Francis “Frank” Henwood.

All of this would come to a head on May 24, 1911, when von Phul-in town to try and convince Isabel to continue to see him and Henwood-who was SO concerned with saving the marriage of his friends the Springers that he was trying to retrieve some racy letters Isabel wrote to von Phul from being made public, would meet in a tavern in the stately Brown Hotel.

Von Phul would be fatally wounded by Henwood along with an innocent bystander, setting the stage for a juicy trial that would result in the immediate divorce of Isabel and John Springer. Unfortunately, it would also mark the pivotal point in Isabel’s life-she would thereafter move to New York City and slide from society girl to actress to prostitute. A mere six years later, Isabel would die penniless at the age of 37.

Henwood, meanwhile, eventually earns a new trial on the charge of killing the innocent bystander and is convicted a second time. After a surprising move of executive clemency, Henwood was paroled but shortly thereafter was returned to prison for a parole violation. He dies in 1929.

This book is intriguing. On one hand, it’s a well-woven tale of jealousy and murder, it’s also a tad bland in the telling.

Author Dick Kreck is a good storyteller – a former journalist with the San Francisco Examiner, he has worked in various capacities at the Denver Post for 31 years and has been a city columnist for 15. So he knows his subject matter.

But the telling comes off slightly dry – more of a “news” piece than a work of non-fiction worthy of a full length book. I yearned for more “paint” – more color to the book – more about the city in 1911, more about John Springer…just MORE.

It is not, however, boring. For this reason, I recommend the book.

Published in: on August 4, 2006 at 4:44 am  Comments (9)  

The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles, by Donald H. Wolfe

It’s an infamous Hollywood story-girl goes to Hollywood in search of fame, fortune and marriage, only to be found murdered in a vacant lot on January 15, 1947. Were that the entirety of the story, it might have faded into the pages of history-but for a sorded detail of her murder-Elizabeth Short was found bisected-cut in half.

Thanks to this sordid detail, the story hit headlines and remained there for many days, newspapers detailing the progress of the police outselling any day in the history of World War II.

(Want to know more? Unfamiliar with the story? See this summary from Crime Library.)

Donald H. Wolfe won’t win any awards for the simplicity of his theories put forth in the book, which is easy to read but rather complicated and probably not for those looking for a light beach read. But for those who enjoy delving into a mystery, with plenty of documentation and photography to go along, this is one you will enjoy. It’s well-paced and reads a little more like a novel than a true-crime book.

However, one has to be somewhat skeptical of all of the theories put forth, just because they are SO over the top-including everyone from Ben Seigel to Marilyn Monroe. Further, the author claims connection to everyone from Ben Seigel to Walt Disney, so the reader gets a feeling that the author might be a bit of a name-dropper.

That said, there are a couple of very interesting side notes in the book-one, a 12 page summary of why Steve Hodel’s book “Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder” was off the mark. (For those unfamiliar with the book, Hodel puts forth the theory that his own father, a Hollywood physician, was not only the Black Dahlia killer but a serial killer.) This was very interesting food for thought on one of the more popular Dahlia theories.

Another is the debunking of the theory that the “mystery” question held back by the police department was that Short had infantile sex organs, one of the more lurid and persisting stories about the murder. While Wolfe never discovers what that mystery question was, he makes a fairly sound argument that it was not any of the theories put forth before.

In short, if you are someone who has read books on The Black Dahlia before, this is something you will want to pick up. Otherwise, the story may be too convoluted and might not be the best place for a casual reader to start. However, the readability of the book, not to mention the many photos and illustrations, makes it a book I would recommend.

Published in: on August 2, 2006 at 2:25 am  Comments (2)  

Manhunt–The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, James L. Swanson

Manhunt--The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's KillerAs an inagural review for my shiny new blog, I want to give some time to “Manhunt–The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer”, by James Swanson. Not only is this a thoroughly enjoyable book on a crime that’s now 150 years old, it reads more like a thriller novel, keeping the reader enthralled from page one with never-before seen details of John Wilkes Booth’s 12 day run from justice.

If you’re not familiar with John Wilkes Booth, just imagine that, in today’s world, Brad Pitt assassinated the president, and you’d be getting close to the craziness that followed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.

Contrary to the feeling of modern times, Lincoln was not a universally liked President in April of 1865-and John Wilkes Booth thought he was going to be a national hero after his plan to murder the President, Vice President and Secretary of State was put into motion.

Swanson paints Booth’s massive ego and delusion in broad strokes, following the mental and physical decline in the 12 days before his death in a barn on a stranger’s farm.

I recommend this even for the most casual fan of true crime-it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s easily digestable and is a great lesson in American history.

Published in: on July 28, 2006 at 4:52 am  Leave a Comment