“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.”
One of Truman Capote's most famous works (right behind Breakfast at Tiffany's) is the story of a true American crime. Written over a period of seven years, Capote crafted a "true crime novel" that would serve as a blueprint for many similar novels to come. Though it is not a mystery as the victims, perpetrators, and outcome are already known to the reader, it still has a sense of the unknown as we try to wrap our minds around the circumstances that lead to the brutal murder of an innocent family.
There was nothing special about the Clutters. In many ways they were a typical Kansas farm family. A hard working, conservative farmer; his reclusive but well loved wife; his popular and vivacious daughter; and his quiet and curious son. But their quiet, ordinary life was brought to a violent end in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959. The killing was brutal and the murderers left few clues and no sense of motive.
Investigators had no idea that they were looking for two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary. The two men, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, had been told that there was a safe full of money in the Clutter home (a false story) and their intention had been to rob them. The night ended with bloodshed and no money. As we follow the story from the night of the murder, through the investigation, and the trial, we can't help but wonder what drove these men to take the lives of four strangers and shatter the peace of a community.
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
It is amazing how much people can't help but be fascinated by crime. Though we feel horror, repulsion, fear, and sadness about it, we still cannot look away. Perhaps it is because we can see ourselves in the victims and, sometimes, in the criminals themselves.
I think what makes this particular crime so haunting even today is that the Clutter family was so ordinary. Like many rural Americans (especially in 1959) they were quiet, well-liked, church-going folk who were respected members of their community. There wasn't anyone who wished them harm. But then they were murdered. The crime shattered the small town of Holcomb, Kansas whose residents wondered if they would ever be safe. If it could happen to the Clutters, it could happen to anyone. That is one aspect of life that Capote captures here. We always feel that horrific crimes happen in foreign countries, in big cities, and on the other side of the tracks. We never stop to think that it could happen in our own towns and our own homes.
The other side of this story is the criminals themselves. It is clear from the beginning that Capote has no use for the smug Dick Hickock. He is written off pretty early as the all-American boy gone bad, despite his wholesome upbringing. Capote is much more fascinated by Perry Smith, the stunted boy/man whose childhood and youth are the stuff of nightmares. Though Hickock conceived the plan, it was Smith who admitted to pulling the trigger. He was notably unstable and prone to fits of rage. Capote's musings on the psychological aspects of the crime are very interesting. In the end, he concludes that the murders were the result of the pent up hurt and anger that Smith felt for all those who had ever done him wrong and that the Clutters were the unfortunate (and innocent) recipients of his brutality.
This is not a fun, happy read but it is an important one. First, it was a pioneer of the genre and the last great work that Capote ever produced. His later years would be defined by drug use and alcoholism that would ultimately lead to his death. It is also a hard look at the nature of American crime and violence. In a time when it seems like every day brings a new story of horrific brutality, you can't help but wonder what leads people to perpetrate such an act. And, more importantly, what can be done to stop it.
It didn't take long for this popular novel to hit the big screen. In 1967, only a year after publication, a film version starring Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, and John Forsythe. It was filmed in many of the actual locations, and was nominated for 4 Oscars.
The story of Capote's research and writing of the novel is equally fascinating. The 2005 film Capote stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Clifton Collins, Jr. It was well received and even won Hoffman the Oscar for best actor. Personally, I found it to be very interesting and finally convinced me to read the novel.
There is a similar film released in 2006 entitled Infamous starring Toby Jones, Daniel Craig, and Sandra Bullock. It also garnered favorable reviews.