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In Cold Blood

Richard Hickcock/Perry Smith

Author: Truman Capote
First Published: 1965, in The New Yorker

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

So begins, beautifully, Truman Capote’s meticulously-researched masterpiece about the brutal 1959 murder of the Clutter family in their home, and the pursuit and execution of their killers. It’s hard for us today to imagine airport news stands devoid of true-crime books with their glossy black covers and embossed, bright red lettering, but before In Cold Blood, the modern true crime story as we know it had yet to be born. Literary accounts of crimes and criminals had always been popular with readers, going all the way back to the Newgate novels of the early 19th-century, and even earlier with such “rogue” novels as Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. But In Cold Blood inaugurated what Capote himself called the “nonfiction novel”—a genre of writing that told the “truth” with the artistry and devices of the traditional realist novel. When you read the book, you step into another densely atmospheric and psychological world, chiefly because Capote’s journalism skills walk arm in arm with his creative powers as a novelist.

The story came to Capote’s attention one day when he read a 300-word, one-column article in the back of the New York Times:

Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15 [1959] (UPI)—A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut . . .

Capote immediately traveled to Kansas (escorted by his childhood friend Harper Lee) to investigate the story. The killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were captured shortly afterwards, and Capote spent the next six years researching and writing the “novel.” The book has been rightly hailed as the author’s greatest achievement.

I have talked about incredible openings before (García Márquez and Shirley Jackson), but with Capote, it’s the ending that never leaves me. The closing scene of In Cold Blood takes place in the cemetery where the graves of all four Clutters are “gathered under a single gray stone.” Al Dewey, the lead investigator who apprehended Smith and Hickock, meets Nancy Clutter’s high school friend, Sue Kidwell, at the gravesite. After a noticeably unemotional conversation about college plans and boys, Sue trots off, seemingly late for something undisclosed.

“And nice to have seen you, Sue. Good luck,” he called after her as she disappeared down the path, a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining—just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.