A few years ago now, I read ‘In Cold Blood’ (1966) by Truman Capote. You might also know his earlier book ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, via the 1961 film adaptation starting Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. He is an author I am fascinated by and, over time, I making my way through his published work.
In Cold Blood is a novel which tells the true story of the 1959 murder of four family members in the farming community of Holcomb, Kansas. (Indeed, watching the recent White House Farm series on ITV reminded me of this book). The Clutter family were an affluent and church-going family, well-liked in Holcomb. The parents Herbert and Bonnie lived at the farm with their two younger children, Nancy (16) and Kenyon (15); two older daughters had already left home and the farm was busy with up to 20 employed farmhands.
Their murderers were two recently-paroled offenders from Kansas State Penitentiary: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Hickock has heard in prison from a fellow inmate and former farmhand that Herbert Clutter kept significant amounts of cash in a safe on the farm premises: he hatched a plot to rob the farm, inviting Smith to join him, with a view to starting a new life in Mexico.
Capote was fascinated by the case, having read about it in the newspaper, and travelled with his friend Nelle Harper Lee (who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird) to Kansas to research further what happened. His final book is a triple-narrative, telling the story from the view of the victims, their assailants and local community members. It is a grimly compelling read.
Capote did however employ some poetic license, made a lot of money from its publication and did not endear himself to Holcomb residents, some of whom felt he took advantage of tragedy.
Such is always the balance when artists seek to represent crime and harm through their medium. Yet for me, Capote’s fictional truth of the Holcomb tragedy continues to provide insight, even 54 years after its publication.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.
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