In Cold Blood.
November 15, 2004 2:47 PM   Subscribe

In Cold Blood. Forty-five years ago today, the bodies of four members of the Clutter family were discovered in Holcomb, Kansas. The killers made off with $40 and a transistor radio. This New York Times report inspired Truman Capote to write what he called the first "non-fiction" novel. There are other accounts of the murders, including one that says the book is not honest. In 1996, Capote and George Plimpton discussed creative journalism and the book in a long interview. (Plimpton's own biography of Capote details some of the liberties Capote took.) [All links SFW.]
posted by kirkaracha (19 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Robert Blake played killer Perry Smith in the 1967 movie, which was filmed on location. Robert Blake's first movie was Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which was Smith's favorite movie.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:47 PM on November 15, 2004

Kirkaracha- I nominate you for hero of the day. You see, I have an American Lit test on this book tomorrow and now my essays will be the essays to end all essays.

*hands you a cookie*

Well done. (Also, the interview with Capote in the Paris Review (which was pre-ICB) is rather fascinating.)
posted by amandaudoff at 2:56 PM on November 15, 2004

I just read this in the last year and its a great book. One of the reasons is that Capote is far from the dispassionate writer. It almost feels like he is there or was involved in some way and so he is able to draw you in as if it were a work of fiction.

Also, you can tell where his sympathies lie and its not exactly what you might expect.
posted by vacapinta at 3:35 PM on November 15, 2004

It should be noted that Harper Lee (yes, author of To Kill a Mocking Bird) volunteered to help Capote research the book. I've read articles which have stated that without her involvement Capote would have never been able to bring this work to fruition. Behind every good man, etc., etc.
posted by quadog at 3:42 PM on November 15, 2004

kirkaracha, this a great post; thank you. For me, one of the saddest things about reading In Cold Blood now is the sense it evokes of the loss of both a family and an entire way of life. Capote was never much of a journalist, but I love him because he was so gifted at something that's a lot harder, to my mind: recreating the emotional feel of a time and place. We lived very near Holcomb and my father personally knew, or knew of, the majority of the people described in the book. For him, it perfectly captured the feeling of fear and paranoia in what had seemed an idyllic community.

I got the same feeling reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. If you're from the rural Midwest, you're not supposed to be proud, but just as important, you're not supposed to be covetous. And of course people are, in a repressed but passionate way, so as the weeks went by and no one was charged, it became a widespread assumption that someone in the area was jealous of Herb Clutter's success and wanted him dead for it. And, that anyone could be next.

By the time I was Nancy Clutter's age, it was the era of FarmAid, and the Garden City of Capote's description was mostly gone. Capote focused on her so tightly and idealized her, but he also captured a sense of optimism, prosperity, and community connection that I never knew, as well as a darker side. Thanks for remembering this story here.
posted by melissa may at 3:53 PM on November 15, 2004

Thanks, kirkaracha.
posted by dobbs at 4:15 PM on November 15, 2004

I love kirkaracha!

I once had the opportunity to see the first page of the big spiral notebook used by Capote to write In Cold Blood.
really tiny script, in pencil, and amazingly very few corrections, at least on that page

about the movie: timeless cinematography by the late maestro Conrad Hall. the famous scene where, before the execution, the rain dripping on the windows is reflected on Scott Wilson's face, and it looks like tears. my goto example of genius cinematography. great, great Conrad Hall, probably the best DP ever (it's either him or Almendros, in my book. Nykvist in 3rd place)

thanks again for the post k!
posted by matteo at 4:23 PM on November 15, 2004

[This is good].
posted by Optamystic at 4:23 PM on November 15, 2004

I picked this book up on a lark one summer during college after seeing something on PBS about the movie's director. I could not believe how good the book was. Thanks for the post.
posted by yerfatma at 4:41 PM on November 15, 2004

Great post, and a great book. Thanks.
posted by interrobang at 4:44 PM on November 15, 2004

George Plimpton's article  "Capote's Long Ride," in the October 13, 1997, issue of New Yorker, is supposed to be good, but I couldn't find it online.

melissa may, your personal connection to the case is really interesting. Both of my parents are from small towns in southern Missouri, so the book has always resonated with me, too.

It almost feels like he is there or was involved in some way

In Cold Blood: A Dishonest Book (which I linked in the post) theorizes that Perry Smith and Richard Hickock had a sexual relationship in prison, and that Capote fell in love with Smith and Capote's feelings for Smith affected the book.

Harper Lee (yes, author of To Kill a Mocking Bird) volunteered to help Capote research the book.
Yep, and Capote was the model for the Dil character in To Kill a Mockingbird.

posted by kirkaracha at 4:53 PM on November 15, 2004

Thank-you so much for the links. I've been meaning to re-read In Cold Blood for some time; it's one of the few books that I dwell on years after I read it. I found the sense of inescapable doom in the novel especially haunting, for the victims, for the killers themselves and (as Melissa May noted) for an entire era.

One thing that bothers me both about the book and J.J. Maloney’s criticism of it is that they both present Nancy Clutter as somehow being the catalyst for the murders. It seems to my (untutored) mind that the Herb Clutter was much more the focus of the killer’s rage: he was the first to die and was killed in a much more “personal” manner than the other members of the family. I just don’t buy Hickock’s attempted rape of Nancy Clutter in her bedroom immediately sending Smith down to the basement to cut Herbert Clutter’s throat. Neither Capote's nor Maloney’s explanations seem to jibe.

Anyone willing to set me right, or should I just read the damn book again?
posted by arha at 5:12 PM on November 15, 2004

The Maysles brothers made a documentary of Capote at the time he was writing the book; it's worth checking out if you get the chance.
posted by carter at 5:22 PM on November 15, 2004

P.S.: Great post!
posted by carter at 5:22 PM on November 15, 2004

In Cold Blood: A Dishonest Book (which I linked in the post) theorizes that Perry Smith and Richard Hickock had a sexual relationship in prison, and that Capote fell in love with Smith and Capote's feelings for Smith affected the book.

I've read "In Cold Blood" four or five times, and that's always been my impression, too, that Capote was in love with Smith. Weird. Thanks for the link to that page.
posted by interrobang at 6:09 PM on November 15, 2004

This is what Metafilter is about. Great post.

What made In Cold Blood a great book is the way that everyone can relate to an aspect of it. He was only in the book for a short passage, but I felt a small connection to the character of the driver that picked up the two killers that were posing as hitchhikers. The man told a couple jokes and they didn't kill him, in 200 pages or so, one can feel passionate about many scores of people described and liberties aside, it was a powerful book.
posted by graventy at 6:15 PM on November 15, 2004

Capote talked about the hitchhiker with Plimpton:
I suppose the most startled interviewee was Mr. Bell, the meat-packing executive from Omaha. He was the man who picked up Perry and Dick when they were hitchhiking across Nebraska. They planned to murder him and then make off with his car. Quite unaware of all this, Bell was saved, as you'll remember, just as Perry was going to smash in his head from the seat behind, because he slowed down to pick up another hitchhiker, a Negro. The boys told me this story, and they had this man's business card. I decided to interview him. I wrote him a letter, but got no answer. Then I wrote a letter to the personnel manager of the meat-packing company in Omaha, asking if they had a Mr. Bell in their employ. I told them I wanted to talk to him about a pair of hitchhikers he'd picked up four months previously. The manager wrote back and said they did have a Mr. Bell on their staff, but it was surely the wrong Mr. Bell, since it was against company policy for employees to take hitchhikers in their cars. So I telephoned Mr. Bell and when he got on the phone he was very brusque; he said I didn't know what I was talking about.

The only thing to do was to go to Omaha personally. I went up there and walked in on Mr. Bell and put two photographs down on his desk. I asked him if he recognized the two men. He said, why? So I told him that the two were the hitchhikers he said he had never given a ride to, that they had planned to kill him and then bury him in the prairie--and how close they'd come to it. Well, he turned every conceivable kind of color. You can imagine. He recognized them all right. He was quite cooperative about telling me about the trip, but he asked me not to use his real name.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:40 PM on November 15, 2004

Amazing, kirkaracha. This thread just gives and gives.
posted by interrobang at 10:41 PM on November 15, 2004

This is what Metafilter is about. Great post.

Amen to that. This is definitely one part of what MetaFilter should be about, an excellent collection of intelligent links expertly assembled for our benefit.

I especially liked the London Review article, which I hadn't seen; there also was a detailed look at Capote in The New Yorker in September, in conjunction with the publishing of his letters. An excerpt.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:17 AM on November 16, 2004

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