In 1959 the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas was rocked by two events. The first was the murders of the local Clutter family. The second was the arrival of Truman Capote.
Capote — the celebrated author of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’—became fascinated by the senselessness of the killings after reading about them in the ‘New York Times.’ He quickly boarded a train to Kansas, hoping to report on the impact the murders were having on the small town for ‘The New Yorker’ magazine. The only difficulty he could see would be getting the locals to talk to him. Besides being a big-city outsider, Capote was barely five feet tall, openly gay, and had an eccentric style of dress and manner of speech.
Knowing this, Capote brought a secret weapon with him — his childhood friend Harper Lee. Although she had already written ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by this time, it had not yet been published. Lee had no celebrity cache to use, just her rural Alabama upbringing to break down the town’s initial reluctance to speak with Capote. This was a master stroke, as Capote was quickly given unprecedented access to family members, investigators, and even the killers themselves.
Together with Lee, Capote amassed about 8,000 pages of notes — far more than a magazine article could contain. So he spend the next six years turning it into a book. He titled it ‘In Cold Blood’ and it became one of the great works of 20th century literature. Not only was it the very first of what would become the “true crime” genre, but the book was also a new form of writing. Capote called it “the nonfiction novel” — applying the techniques of novel writing to journalism.
And he did this right from page one:
“Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans — in fact, few Kansans — had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.”
All that changed that fateful morning, Capote writes, when “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.” (Here he included the two killers who were later executed).
‘In Cold Blood’ was, and continues to be, a bestseller. It is still the number 2 top-selling true crime book of all time (the first is ‘Helter Skelter.’). It has also been translated in 30 languages, filmed four times, and made Capote a very rich man. It also made him a very haunted one. The killings and the killers broke something in him. He would never finished another book, and began to drink himself to death, not living to see 60.
Now all these years later, a new book is coming out which promises to present “a totally different theory” about the Clutter family killings.
This new untitled book comes from Ron Nye, the son of Harold Nye, one of the lead investigators of the murders. It is not clear why the elder Nye — now deceased — carried home files from work, but his son says they clearly contradict a lot of Capote’s assertions of facts.
Two years ago the Kansas Attorney General applied for a restraining order against the use of the files, stating they are not only property of the State, but also violate the privacy of the living relatives of Clutters. However this request was thrown out by a judge.
It is difficult to imagine what new revelations these files might bring. Professional and amateur detectives have spent the last 50 years pointing out discrepancies and factual errors found in ‘In Cold Blood.’ Yet all hold nothing against Capote, as the editorial scrutiny of today did not exist when Capote was creating a brand new genre of writing.
Even Holcomb’s current mayor openly wishes for this new book to go away, believing it victimizes the Clutters all over again. They were, and remain in the town’s heart, just as Capote described them — “of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.”
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library