In November, 1959, recently-paroled Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are out for one last score before heading south to Mexico. Acting on information extracted from Hickock’s former cellmate - a one-time employee of a wealthy Kansas farmer - they descend on the tiny town of Holcomb. Their actions that night seal their place in history. Holcomb changes overnight from a town where no-one locks their doors to a town filled with suspicion and fear, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is brought in to solve one of the worst crimes in state history. Four members of the Clutter family - husband, wife, and teenage children - have been shot, for apparently no reason at all. Here the whole sequence of events - the day of the murders, the pursuit of the killers, the years of legal manvoeuvring - are drawn together in a work that combines the best of fiction and journalism.
I’ve read very little true crime, and that all of the historical-detective variety (piecing together the solution to a decades- or centuries-old case); so it was good to see where the whole phenomenon began, and to read an account written by a contemporary. It was an engrossing read; Capote has a knack for spot-on descriptions that bring people and places to life on the page. It’s as easy to read as a novel, but is liberally filled with quotes and even entire blocks of text taken from the official record, never allowing you to forget for a moment that the events really did occur. The reader is privy to the identity and location of the killers, but is otherwise left to discover things along with the investigators. It’s an effective technique, cutting from the killers lurking in the drive to the discovery of the bodies; like Nancy Clutter’s friends, you know something is wrong in that house, but not exactly what they’re going to find. The precise details of what and how are only revealed later. The book also goes into the minds of the killers, which can be an unnerving experience; Perry Smith collected obscure words, just like I do. Actually, Perry Smith in general was unnerving - he made sure all his victims were comfortably settled before killing them ... well, in cold blood.
Even after nearly fifty years, and in a time of mass shootings and dead backpackers and dozens of fictional televisual murders a week, the crime at the centre of this book retains its horror. Not just because the victims were so good-hearted and popular, or because of the disturbing co-existence in Perry Smith of callousness and kindness. It is because of the effects it had on the entire community; making people look at each other with suspicion and mistrust, move away, change their plans of relocating to the country, lock their doors. It shattered Holcomb’s innocence, and is thus several shades more terrible than if it had taken place in a large city.