Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Adventure classics -- The ones who have to pay for it

In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote


Before the death of movie star Sharon Tate and her friends made Charles Manson a household name in 1969, before the My Lai massacre in 1968, before Richard Speck tortured and killed student nurses, or Charles Whitman staked out the University of Texas clock tower with his rifle in 1966, there was In Cold Blood.

“A theory I’ve harbored since I first began to write professionally, (is) that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’” Truman Capote told journalist George Plimpton in 1966. “The difficulty was to choose a promising subject. Then one morning in November 1959, while flicking through the New York Times, I encountered on a deep inside page, this headline: ‘Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain’. . . The human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”

So, engaging the help of lifelong friend Harper Lee, Capote packed up for small town Kansas to see what real murder looked like. The journey would turn a small town tragedy into the opening act of a blood-drenched decade.

Arrested within weeks of the killings, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith spent more than five years on death row in Kansas State Penitentiary for Men in Leavenworth County, Kansas. At the request of Hickock and Smith, Capote attended their hangings in the early morning of April 14, 1965. In Cold Blood was published as a serial in The New Yorker beginning September 25, 1965. Capote had nineteen years to live.

Hickock and Smith seemed unlikely partners in crime. Hickock was outwardly affable, a popular high school athlete and doted-on son. He was a competent auto mechanic who began a career of passing bad checks to support the lifestyle he hoped to become accustomed to. Smith was the half-Cherokee son of itinerant rodeo performers who abandoned him to a series of abusive foster homes, leaving him with “the aura of a wounded animal, a creature walking wounded.”

The two met briefly in prison. Despite Smith’s boast of having killed a “nigger,” a story fabricated to impress “tough brass boy” Hickock, neither had previously committed any violent crime. But Hickock remembered Smith tale. After their release, he would write asking for help with a “sure thing,” the robbery of another cellmate’s wealthy former employer, Herbert Clutter.

Enraged at their failure to locate anything but petty cash in Clutter’s house, Hickock and Smith killed him and his family, one by one.

“I believe that Perry did what he did for the reasons he himself states (in his confession),” Capote said to Plimpton, in the 1966 interview Plimpton would later include in Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. “The Clutters were such a perfect set of symbols for every frustration in his life. As Perry himself said, ‘I didn‘t have anything against them, and they never did anything wrong to me--the way other people have all my life. Maybe they‘re just the ones who have to pay for it.’”

And what did Hickock and Smith think about Capote?

“Perry was always asking me: Why are you writing this book?” Capote said. “So I would say, I had a strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art. And then (Perry) would laugh and say, ‘What an irony.’ I’d ask what he meant and he’d tell me that all he’d ever wanted to do in his life was to produce a work of art.”

I had intended to discuss Wilkie Collins’ nineteenth century mystery, The Moonstone, today. But I had hardly typed that intention before Army truck driver Ivan Lopez killed three fellow soldiers and wounded sixteen others before turning his gun on himself at Fort Hood in Central Texas. And started me thinking about the minds of those who kill.

(Next week, Adventure classics will continue an April of mysteries with, yes, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.)

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