The fear of any writer, in any genre, is always the fear of not being able to write again, on anything.
Such as it might be for a music band becoming a One-Hit-Wonder.
The fifth death to be realized by the acts of Perry Smith (top right) and Richard Hickock would be the literary career of Truman Capote.
“In Cold Blood” was the first true attempt at defining “Reportage” through the work of a non-fiction novel, and in its glaring, chilling reality, that single book put Capote and Holcomb, Kansas on the map forever more.
The murders of the Clutter family take place in the late evening of November 14, 1959, and although grizzly enough by anyone’s standards even today, Truman through his words, made those victims, that crime and those murderers come to life as no one had ever done before.
Richard Hickock believed jail house scuttlebutt that Mr. Clutter kept large amounts of cash in his farm house, in a safe, and by the end of that evening, Perry and Richard knew that there was no cash, nor even a safe in the Clutter home and a family of four would have to die to cover up a bungled robbery.
The women upstairs, the men in the basement, all four shot by Hickock once at close range to the head with a shotgun, Mr. Clutter’s throat being slashed by Smith. No sexual assault, no ill-gotten gains, just four lives spent for nothing.
The bodies were discovered the next morning by the school-girl friend of Nancy Clutter and the heinous murders only warranted a three paragraph mention in the New York Times when Truman stumbled upon the back page article. And in less than seven years time, Truman’s life and that crime would reach staggering heights of infamy that neither Holcomb nor Capote would ever live down.
One of the principal tenets of writing is “Write on what you know”, so for Truman, diving into the world of criminal non-fiction and choosing a small-town Kansas crime to do so must have been as un-nerving as stepping on Mars.
Despite the awkward stares and stone-walling by the citizens, Truman, and his good friend Harper Lee (novelist of “To Kill A Mocking Bird”) nestled in for a seven month stay in Holcomb, coming to know the crime better than the criminals did and with his determination and charisma, eventually winning over those hesitant citizens, many of whom remained close friends of Truman right up until his own death decades later.
Although his research into the murders came to a general close a year later, Truman refused to write the ending to his novel until the fate of the killers was known. And at the stroke of midnight, on April 14, 1965, on a rainy night in Lansing, and some five years after the murders, Perry and Richard were hung at the Kansas State Penitentiary with Truman nervously witnessing the executions.
In 1966, “In Cold Blood” was finally published and the reviews of the book were stunning and world wide.
Truman, up to this time, was best known for what I will call “Powder Puff” stories of young up and coming New Yorkers, best fictionalized in his book and movie adaption of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”.
“In Cold Blood” transformed him and his literary style and sent him soaring through the stratosphere as one of 20th century’s best novelists. He was wined and dined,
a movie was made from the book
and Truman spent his final years hitting the talk show circuit, the spotlight never dimming for this man until his own death from alcoholism in 1984.
Truman’s literary death came eighteen years earlier, at the publishing of “In Cold Blood”, as he never managed to write any piece for public consumption ever again.
Maybe, as Richard Nixon said in his closing speech at the White House in 1974,
Only if you have been in the deepest valley,
can you ever know how magnificent it is
to be on the highest mountain.
And maybe reaching the ultimate pinnacle of success with his novel about the Clutter murders was how Truman fell into that lowest valley, his work of perfection being the death knell for more than just four innocent lives one horrible night in Kansas. Maybe when one achieves literary perfection, any other words one may type thereafter lack the sheen and brilliancy of that once perfect literary storm.
Hemingway took the fast root to death, escaping from his writer’s block suffering, with a shotgun blast to the head, and so followed Truman, with the act of slow suicide from a liquor bottle.
Maybe every writer’s dream is to achieve that perfect literary storm but so should be his fear of achieving the same.