Truman Capote’s Score

In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote
Random House, 343 pp., $5.95

Truman Capote
Truman Capote; drawing by David Levine

Poor dead Bonnie Clutter appeared to a friend in a dream. “To be murdered,” she wept. “No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.” In Cold Blood is strewn with snatches of pregnant speech, with glimpses of things that grow and grow in the eye of memory. None of these particulars surpasses the grimly clinching effect of Mrs. Clutter’s dream speech.

For the still living Mrs. Clutter, moreover, the horror of being murdered herself had been triply compounded. Roped to her bed, her lips sealed with adhesive tape, she was the last of four members of her family to be despatched by two youthful intruders, entire strangers to the family, in the Clutters’ roomy farmhouse on the plains of western Kansas one moonlit night in November of 1959. At intervals she heard the gunshots—in a single instance possibly the gaspings of a slit throat as well—that announced the deaths, one by one, of her husband, her fifteen-year-old son, Kenyon, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Nancy. For some reason Nancy Clutter’s lips had been left untaped. Her head turned to the wall and away from the flashlight beamed on it, the shotgun levelled at it, she was able to plead briefly with her killers, again possibly within hearing of her mother across the hall: “Oh, no! Oh please. No! No! No! No! Don’t! Oh, please don’t! Please!” Mrs. Clutter’s turn to be flashlighted and blasted at close range came next. Was her death a deliverance that she welcomed? Among her pitying, grieving, haunted friends in the small town of Holcomb, some hoped that it was. A dim comfort glimmered in the thought.

No other comfort was at first to be found in any aspect of the seemingly inexplicable massacre of this respected, in part beloved, family. Even those natives of the place who resorted to fanciful theorizing and secret finger pointing seem to have done so out of pure fear—a fear too burdensome to find support in religious patience or rational wait-and-see. Here and there, speculation survived the very capture and conviction of the criminals. It was suggested that still darker forces and larger figures hovered in the infinitely contorted and receding backgrounds of an occurrence so monstrous itself, so unprecedented in local history, as the Clutter murder was. Up to then, Holcomb and its environs had made up a somewhat “backward” community. A degree of frontier austerity, religious and moral, persisted in those hinterland fastnesses despite all the well-filled grain elevators, the ranch-type houses, the television sets, the outdoor movies, the teen-age dating. Overnight, as it were, Holcomb had joined the mid-twentieth century. The ages, alike of faith and of rational doubt, had been quickly passed. Our time of suspicion, this sinister synthesis of faith and doubt, of fierce conviction and mad ratiocination, had been reached.

Thus is Holcomb’s brutal coming of age pictured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.…

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