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In Cold Blood – Scottish Review of Books
by David Robinson

In Cold Blood

August 14, 2015 | by David Robinson

ODD, isn’t it, how friendships form? Take Duane West and me. We live on different continents, have only spent six hours in each other’s company eight years ago, and might never meet again. Yet every month or so we exchange emails. He’ll tell me about life in Garden City, Kansas, and I keep him posted with the latest news from Scotland. It helps that he’s a politics junkie.

In the time I’ve known Duane, he has taught himself to play the piano, and written and staged a musical. He has collected and put on exhibitions of an otherwise neglected artist, and earlier this summer bought a theatre and turned it over to a local voluntary group. He’s still plugging away at a business proposal for triangular ice cream, but so far no-one is interested.

So it’s all the more strange that when our friendship began, chatting on the double-swing porch outside his home in 2007, it was with me wanting to interview him about someone he knew but didn’t want to talk about: Truman Capote. And even though we’ve never discussed Capote since, I can’t deny that my friendship with Duane has made me change my mind about In Cold Blood, a book I used to idolise.

Or at least I did back in 2007. It was the reason I drove west across the Kansas plains to Garden City to meet Duane and others who had known Capote and Harper Lee when they were researching what was originally meant to be a piece for the New Yorker but ended up as the best-selling non-fiction book of the Sixties. I wanted to see it for myself, this town where, on 7 January 1960, the two men who had murdered local farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie and his two teenage children in the nearby village of Holcomb, were finally brought to justice. And justice, according to Duane, who led the prosecution against them, meant hanging.

I still admire In Cold Blood: the way it burrows deeper into its subject than most true crime ever manages; its skilful non-linear narration; its crisp, yet often lyrical style, the depth and range of Capote’s research. When I was in west Kansas, I tried to catch a glimpse across the decades of how Holcomb and Garden City must have been when the book still hadn’t been written, when Capote and Lee hadn’t yet won over the people they most needed to talk to and many of the locals were suspicious of them.  I knew precisely where and when that switched over to acceptance and assistance: 2pm on Christmas Day, 1959, when they walked up to Clifford and Dolores Hope’s white clapboard house in Garden City and rang the doorbell. More than four decades later, I rang that doorbell too, entered a house barely changed since the Sixties, and talked to the Hopes about their illustrious Christmas guests. You’d have to have very cold blood indeed not to feel a frisson of connection.

So yes, I knew the story within the story:  how Capote charmed the Hopes with his tales of his Hollywood celebrity friends, how they then put out the word in Garden City, and doors suddenly opened to them – including, most importantly, that of Alvin and Marie Dewey. Dewey – ‘tall, dark and just plain handsome’ as Harper Lee wrote in her notes, ‘Foxy’ as Capote called him – was the senior detective on the Clutter murder case. Once he had secured Dewey’s friendship, Capote had both the inside story of the hunt for the murderers, and a wealth of the kind of detail he could draw on for his ‘non-fiction novel’. When Dewey visited the murder scene in In Cold Blood, for example, he looked out of the kitchen window and saw a scarecrow wearing a skirt. It reminded him, he said, of the dream Marie had told him over breakfast in which she’d met a ghostly Bonnie Clutter, whispering and wringing her hands, and saying over and over, ‘To be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.’  Never mind the strong whiff of southern gothic; just imagine how close you have to get to a police chief before he tells you his wife’s dreams.

If Dewey is one magnetic pole of In Cold Blood, the murderer Perry Smith is the other; indeed almost a third of the book is devoted to him. The reason, as suggested in two Hollywood films – Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006) – as well as the biographies by Gerald Clarke and George Plimpton on which they were respectively based, is the strong emotional bond Capote formed with Smith. Both men had been abandoned by their parents, both had stormy relationships with absent or itinerant fathers, and both were ridiculed for being small, artistic and effeminate.  ‘Their relationship,’ writes Clarke, ‘was more complicated than a love affair: each looked at the other and saw, or thought he saw, the man he might have been.’ As with Dewey, that intimacy resulted in interviews of remarkable emotional depth, as when Smith confides to Capote that since childhood he’s had a recurring dream of a ‘bird taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower’ who takes revenge on his enemies, then gently ‘winged him away to paradise’.  He’d never told this dream to Dick Hickock, his fellow murderer, because he would only have mocked. He trusts Capote, in other words, even more than the man with whom he decided to go on a killing spree.

Capote didn’t tape his interviews, and the New Yorker fact-checker who worked on the book didn’t (as they would do now) double-check quoted conversations. But that’s not the reason I started to suspect the book’s veracity.

In Infamous, there’s a scene in which Toby Jones as Capote, chatting to his upper-crust friends, tries out slightly different versions of Perry Smith’s explanation about why he killed Herb Clutter; back in his study, he places a big tick on his notepad next to the most effective one. In another scene Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee accuses him of ‘trying to turn Bonnie Clutter into some kind of faux-poetic recluse when what it sounds like is she was just thrown off by her menopause’ – a criticism which, incidentally, Herb Clutter’s two surviving daughters also made: Capote’s portrait of their murdered mother was, they said, unrecognisable.

My doubts about the book grew stronger when I met Duane. Though no-one did more than him to prosecute the murderers – preparing the briefs, handling jury selection, questioning most of the witnesses, leading off the closing arguments, he is virtually absent from the book – indeed, in a letter to the Deweys (‘Dearhearts’) Capote boasted that he’s got half way through writing it without even mentioning him, and when he does, he mischaracterises him as an assistant prosecutor and calls him ‘a 28-year-old who looks 40 and sometimes 50’.  In his field notes for 5 January 1960, he went further, describing him as a ‘phoney bastard. Just anxious to make political hay and steal all the glory that rightly belongs to AD (Alvin Dewey).’

Capote was always keen on Dewey getting the glory. He would, he said, be the ‘hero’ of his story. This looks suspiciously like payback. Dewey had broken all the rules by giving Capote access to the police files on the case denied to everyone else in the media circus and letting him look at actual evidence (Nancy Clutter’s teenage diary), as well as persuading reluctant locals to talk to Capote, and arranging for him to be issued with his own Kansas driving licence. Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed the full extent of Capote’s gratitude: in 1967, when Richard Brooks filmed In Cold Blood, he even fixed it that Columbia Pictures give Marie Dewey $10,000 – twice the annual salary for a Kansas teacher at the time – for acting as a consultant.

I didn’t know that when I talked to Duane in 2007 and I’m not sure he did either. But he did point out that Dewey wasn’t the great sleuth Capote made him out to be. In In Cold Blood, when Dewey was told about the prison snitch’s tip-off pointing to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith as likely culprits of the Clutter murders, he acts on it immediately. Having done so, he takes home the rap sheets and mug shots of the two suspects to show his wife and indicates that the case has effectively been solved.

It wasn’t like that at all, Duane told me. When the call from the prison came through with the two suspects’ names, Dewey refused to believe it. Although his investigation had been flailing around for over a month without any leads, Dewey ‘persisted with a theory that the Clutters were killed as part of a vendetta’.

An investigation by Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Helliker two years ago supports West and contradicts Capote’s flattering portrait of the police investigation.  Far from Dewey and his team acting immediately on the tip-off, they did nothing about it for a full five days. The documents proving this were the subject of a court case last year between the Kansas police and the son of a now-dead detective who is now about to publish his own book on the case. It’s entirely typical of Duane that, even though the papers would vindicate his critique of Capote (‘Reportage? Garb-age’), he backed the police’s unsuccessful battle to keep the documents from being published. ‘The victims in the case are the Clutters,’ he said. ‘It’s time to let them rest in peace.’

What do we learn from all of this? That even a work of journalism promising objective truth – the sub-heading Capote gave to In Cold Blood was ‘A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences’ – is always going to be marred by subjectivity. Capote may well have loved the murderer, Perry Smith; he certainly liked foxy, handsome Alvin Dewey, and his feelings about both men governed the way he approached his story. As Dewey himself pointed out in an interview with the Garden City Telegram: ‘The treatment people received in Mr Capote’s book depended on whether he liked them. I was the luckiest.’

Capote didn’t, however, like Duane West. He had nothing in common with a 6ft 4in straight-talking, teetotal, non-smoking, hometown Methodist Democrat like Duane, who didn’t bend the rules to help him but treated him the same as everyone else in the media circus. Because of that, he wrote him out of his story, just as I’ve written him into mine. But bear in mind that I’m biased too. He is, after all, a friend.

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