On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.
As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.
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This is a book that I read a few years ago after watching the amazing film “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whilst I often read books and then recommend them to my friends, there are a few titles that I will push almost mercilessly and this is one of them: it is THAT good. It was the first non-fiction title that I suggested to the book group, but it took a few other enjoyable ventures into the genre before they finally choose to read it.
It is often credited with being the first ‘non-fiction novel’, although there are a few earlier examples, and it is certainly very different from other non-fiction titles that I have read in that there is no feeling of a narrator laying out their research. In this way it reads like a typical fiction novel: Capote presents everything as truth and adds no speculation or discussion of possible actions or motivations. This is most obvious in the details of the Clutters’ last day, where some events are related in explicit detail whilst others are barely mentioned, presumably because the witnesses involved refused to cooperate with him. At no time do we feel as if we are looking through the author’s eyes and this adds a disquieting tone of inevitability to the events that he relates. His matter-of-fact approach makes the events seem even more mundane, and thus more disturbing.
One of the group related the terror that she felt after watching the 1967 film based upon the book and it is easy to understand how the Clutter murders created such a sense of panic and unease in rural America. At that time people generally knew, and trusted, all of their neighbors and rarely locked their doors, even assuming that their doors were fitted with locks. This murder helped to shatter that sense of security and inject a feeling of paranoia into many peoples’ lives. If this could happen to the Clutters then what was to stop it happening to you or me or the Smiths down the road? Unfortunately, the case provided little comfort even when the culprits were caught because they had the thinnest of reasons for approaching the Clutter house and seemingly no motive for the ensuing carnage.
Capote creates an uncomfortable sense of dread by taking us through the Clutters’ last day. Not only does this make us sympathize with the victims, but it builds suspense before the inevitable crime. Their very niceness and ordinariness makes the murders even more horrific because they did absolutely nothing to justify what happened to them. The tension is heightened by interweaving their boringly normal day with details of the murderers’ road trip to Holcomb. The fact that Mr Clutter was notorious for NOT conducting his business in cash and so was a poor ‘mark’ for the intended robbery adds more pathos and makes us increasingly anxious as night falls and the perpetrators arrive. We hope that somehow history will re-write itself and the Clutters will escape to live the long and generally happy lives that they surely deserve.
We are spared a vicarious replay of the murders in favor of eye-witness testimony of the bodies being discovered, although this conveys its own horror as we see the reactions of friends and neighbors. A detailed recounting of what actually occurred is left until later in the book, when it is given during the suspects’ questioning. Whilst we will never know exactly who did what, the physical evidence does corroborate a lot of the account presented. Chillingly, we never learn why the Clutters’ were killed: whilst Smith claims to have killed all of them he provides no reason for killing Mr Clutter. Logically, once the father is dead Smith needs to kill the other family members to remove potential witnesses to the murder, but he never explains why he took that first step. He claims that Hickock repeatedly said that there should be no witnesses, but then recounts the first murder as if it happened without his conscious intent. Capote does not debate whether this is Smith minimizing his culpability or a true recounting of his loss of self-control.
The pointlessness of the crime is the most depressing and troubling aspect of the book, although the seemingly ordinary life stories of the two criminals add to a general sense of hopelessness and bewilderment. Capote leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the effects of the pair’s upbringing upon their actions and personalities. In doing so it seems to be much easier to find sympathy for Smith who had endured a classically ‘bad’ upbringing. He suffered prejudice as a half-Cherokee, his mother was a promiscuous alcoholic, his father was exploitative and abusive, he was abused by nuns in an orphanage because of his bed-wetting and then he suffered debilitating injuries in a motorcycle crash which left him with shortened legs and in continuous pain. A stint in the marines failed to instill him with personal discipline and he drifted into a life of petty crime and inevitable incarceration. In contrast, Hickock had a normal, happy childhood although he suffered severe head injuries in a car accident at the age of 19, which left him with a noticeably damaged face.
By providing a narrative of what the pair did both before and after the killings we are given a chilling glimpse into their thoughts. Both felt superior to their fellow man, and in many ways they were: both were of above average intelligence and had talents that they could have exploited to live productive, honest lives. However, both harbored a grievance at the unfairness of the world and saw people only as a means to acquiring what they wanted. Both had some seriously antisocial attitudes, possibly resulting from life experience or, in Hickock’s case, brain damage. It should be noted that two of Smith’s siblings committed suicide, whilst his surviving sister refused to have any contact with him or their father. It is also very telling that Smith insisted that he killed the Clutter women because he felt sorry for Hickock’s mother and did not want her to think of her son as a killer.
Their actions after the murders are bizarre in that they had a very good chance of remaining uncaught but instead chose to return to the United States from the anonymity of Mexico and continued to write bad checks, making it relatively easy for the police to find them once they became suspects. It is also chilling to realize that they spent some time actively seeking car owners to murder: one gentleman escaped death only due to the timely appearance of a hitchhiker. They bickered like a dysfunctional married couple adding to their aura of sad desperation and making us wonder why they stuck together at all. Their apparent inability to settle into any form of normal life suggests that they would have continued wandering around the States until they were caught for some crime or another and returned to prison. I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but these two men were a real danger to society and needed to be removed from it permanently. They remain the most likely suspects in another case where a family of four was murdered by shooting although no definitive evidence has been found to link them to the crime.
It is very rare for me to find myself impressed by a writer’s expertise as I am actually reading their work: but this is one of those cases. It is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of writing that I have ever read and I heartily recommend it to everyone.