Dill’s eyes flickered at Jem, and Jem looked at the floor. Then he rose and broke the remaining code of our childhood. He went out of the room and down the hall. “Atticus.” his voice was distant, “can you come here a minute, sir?”
A quote from To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee who, it is rumoured, based the character of Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, on her childhood best friend from Monroeville, Alabama. That friend was Truman Capote and in 1966 Capote published a genre-creating book, In Cold Blood. Capote and Lee worked together on the research for the book and I’d like to celebrate that collaboration because it helped Capote fulfil his ambition of producing an epic, nonfiction novel.
In Cold Blood has both fascinated and appalled readers since its publication and it remains at the centre of a real-life murder mystery that continues to this day. As recently as a year ago detectives in Florida wanted to exhume the bodies of the two men hanged for the crimes detailed in Capote’s book, to see if a DNA match could be found with a similar crime in the same year. At the heart of Capote’s book lie the murders of four members of the Clutter family at River Valley farm in the town of Holcomb, Kansas. In the local park, about half a mile away from the Clutter house, there is a plaque which reveals that Herb and Bonnie Clutter, and two of their four children, Kenyon and Nancy, were killed November 15, 1959, by intruders who entered their home with the intent of robbery.
This line has always struck me as odd. Odd, in the sense, it seems such a simple, throw away line that barely captures the horror of the shotgun blasts that killed four innocent people, and odd in the sense that it does little to capture the importance of the event as a seminal moment in US social history. At the time of the murders, the US gazed at the rest of the world in a manner that is difficult to imagine today. It was close enough to the end of the Second World War to still bask in the glory of its role in ending the conflict. Economic growth stretched into the distance and the horrors of Vietnam were too far into the future to be imaginable against the backdrop of the impending Swinging Sixties. It was the best of times and the Holcomb murders shattered everything. That Capote’s book gave rise not just to several film adaptations but to an entire genre, the nonfiction novel, is a testament to the sheer brilliance of his writing. He turned a seminal social moment, into a literary one.
In 1958, the year before the murders, Capote had published Breakfast at Tiffany’s which would later be made into an iconic film. A year after publication Capote read a newspaper article about the Holcomb murders and something led him to travel nearly 2000 miles from New York to Kansas to investigate the story. With his childhood friend Harper Lee, he spent the next five years researching the case, talking to witnesses, even becoming close friends with the yet to be executed murderers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. The results of his investigation were published as In Cold Blood in January 1966. The story it tells is compelling, and I urge you to read it. Holcomb is as close to the very centre of the US as it is possible to be. It was the very essence of the US heartland and communities like Holcomb are what you think of when you imagine travelling across the Great Plains of the US. It was into this world that Capote strode to investigate the brutal murders of the Clutters. As he himself wrote, of all the people in all the world the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered. The murders themselves are horrific, and Capote doesn’t spare you from this. But nor does him spare himself in his pursuit of the detail. His research is exhaustive and exhausting. It floods the book with colour and it covers every possible aspect of the victims and their killers.
As a piece of work in itself, the research is exemplary, and this is what I think makes the book so fascinating. I wonder how Capote ever managed to be accepted, ever managed to be allowed to stay and research what would become his most famous book. He was openly gay, overtly and flamboyantly so as any number of famous photographs, interviews and film portrayals will show you. To imagine him spending five years researching this story amongst the denim jean and cowboy hat-wearing residents of Holcomb beggars belief. As his childhood friend and fellow researcher Harper Lee put it, those people had never seen anyone like Truman. He was like someone coming off the moon. But then I think that is really the secret of Capote’s success. Without Harper Lee, without the natural counterpoint that she gave him, I don’t think he could have succeeded. But I am delighted he did.
If you haven’t read In Cold Blood, you really should. Everything about it fascinates.