Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is easily one of the greatest American books of all time. Published in 1966, it can be described as the first true-crime novel ever written. Capote expertly combines factual, journalistic reporting with elements of style and a clearly defined narrative. The book is far more than just a description of the events, as Capote masterfully transforms the gruesome case into a thrilling tale. The novel has long been considered the most accurate and reliable account of the facts, though recently a second source has emerged, thus perhaps challenging Capote’s view of the facts.
The book centers around the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, on Nov. 15, 1959. Capote follows the two killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, in an attempt to understand the motives behind their actions. The author was present during the entirety of the investigation, conducting interviews in Holcomb but also shadowing Alvin Dewey, the agent in charge of the case. Capote also devoted most of the book to the murderers once they were arrested, hoping to piece together their side of the story.
From Capote’s extensive research over the six years between the murders and the execution of the killers, we learn that Dick Hickock first heard of the Clutter family through a cell mate, Floyd Wells, who once worked for Herbert Clutter, a prominent farmer. Wells revealed to Hickock that the family kept a well-stocked safe in the house, which could contain over $10,000. Hickock soon became obsessed, and, once released from prison, hatched a plan with Perry Smith: they were to burglarize the house and make off with the money. This, however, is where things went awry; after breaking into the house and tying up the family, the two criminals could not find any trace of any safe. In a fit of rage, they murdered the Clutter family, and made off with $40-50. The bodies were discovered the next day by a neighbor’s daughter.
The case immediately attracted the attention of the national press, as well as Capote’s interest. The author was then present every step of the way, following the police on their wild goose chase across the country as they attempted to track down Hickock and Smith. Capote’s work has so far been accepted as the official version of the facts, as no one else has ever managed to compile such an extensive, comprehensive account of the murder and subsequent investigation. The book is based on interviews with locals and the police, and even conversations with the killers themselves. In fact, it has even been speculated that Capote developed a form of friendship with Perry Smith.
Recently, however, The Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation that revealed that Dick Hickock himself apparently wrote a memoir during his time on the death row. Though he tried to have it published on numerous occasions, the book was never picked up by a publishing house. The memoir is a turning point: for years, readers have had to rely entirely on Capote’s interpretation of the events and his insight into the murderers’ heads, but this newfound manuscript provides more depth to the story than ever believed possible.
The book, entitled The High Road to Hell, seemingly confirms every detail put forward by Capote in In Cold Blood, with one exception: a sentence in the manuscript suggests that the murder may not have been as haphazard as previously thought, revealing that Hickock and Smith may have been contracted to carry out the killings. “We were running short on time,” Hickock wrote. “It was almost two o’clock and our meeting with Roberts was about an hour away. We didn’t want to miss that. Five thousand bucks is a lot of dough.”
There is no further mention of this theory in the memoirs, however, meaning that we cannot draw conclusions at this time. Further comparison shows that Capote had correctly captured all other aspects of the case, so In Cold Blood continues to be the comprehensive source on the subject.
However, it is evident that Capote dedicated more time to studying Smith than Hickock during the writing of In Cold Blood, as the author analyses Smith’s background and mental issues in greater depth. The High Road to Hell will thus add the finishing touch to the recounting of the story: a first-hand account of the events of the fateful night of Nov. 15, 1959.