“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.
I can clearly remember 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.