Even if they hadn’t been immortalized in Truman Capote’s landmark book, In Cold Blood, the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, would stun as an unthinkable tragedy visited upon the most unlikely victims in the most unlikely of places.
Still, in 1966, Capote did gift the world with In Cold Blood and, through the book, the slaughter of the four Holcombs at the hands of drifters Dick Hickock and Perry Smith remains forever encased in the amber of a literary masterpiece that continues to fascinate, horrify, and creatively inspire all those it touches.
That holds true for the entire true-crime-book genre, which In Cold Blood effectively invented, as well as direct re-creations of and meditations on the Clutter massacre itself. Here are six prominent examples — including one that just broke as rather shocking news in March 2017.
IN COLD BLOOD by TRUMAN CAPOTE
Truman Capote initially dazzled both the literary elite and the reading public alike with his exquisitely crafted short stories and longer works of fiction, including his 1958 landmark, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
As such, he was a major figure in American life by the time he and his childhood friend, acclaimed writer Harper Lee, traveled to the heartland to interview locals and research the Clutter killings for his 1965 magnus opus, In Cold Blood.
Described as a “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood astonished on first impact with its superlative prose, profoundly evocative details, and complex, psychologically rich triple narrative that recounts the tragedy from the points-of-view of the murderers, the Clutters, and the Holcomb community that lived through the crime.
Since In Cold Blood delivered a reading experience very much unlike any other, and a brilliant one at that, In Cold Blood did, in essence, invent the true-crime book as we’ve come to know it ever since. In fact, it remains the genre’s second all-time best-seller, trailing behind only Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.
So while In Cold Blood forever transformed literature, it also largely shattered its author. The construction and completion In Cold Blood ultimately so overwhelmed Capote that he never entirely completed another book. That power pours forth palpably from every page.
IN COLD BLOOD (1967)
Director: Richard Brooks
Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe
To describe a film centered on a real-life atrocity as “beautiful” may seem startling or even inappropriate, but it is the first word that leaps to mind upon considering writer-director Richard Brooks’ cinematic adaptation of In Cold Blood.
Shot in sumptuous, but appropriately cold, black-and-white, Brooks mesmerizingly paces the saga, which focuses mainly on the killers, played by the perfectly cast Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Dick Hickock.
The film earned Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography, but it didn’t win any. In 2008, however, the United States National Film Registry named In Cold Blood to be preserved in the Library of Congress as a genuine American treasure.
IN COLD BLOOD: THE TV MINI-SERIES (1996)
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Cast: Anthony Edwards, Eric Roberts, Sam Neill
While it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to “top” the 1967 big screen version of In Cold Blood, CBS aired a two-part mini-series that fleshed out the book and does boast a good cast — in particular Eric Roberts as Perry Smith — and an original score by Quincy Jones.
Still, this take on In Cold Blood is strictly small-time. Stick with the book and the original movie.
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Philip Seymour Hoffman deservedly took home a Best Actor Academy Award for his tour-de-force in the title role of Capote.
The film itself initially chronicles the author, accompanied by Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, as they piece together the material for In Cold Blood in Kansas.
Later, the focus switches to Capote’s emotional attachment to murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and the toll it took on him in completing In Cold Blood, particularly as Harper Lee’s life takes off with the publication and subsequent movie adaptation of her masterwork, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Capote pulls no punches in depicting the shortcomings of its subject, nor in the brutality of the Clutter killings or the executions of Hickock and Smith, which the author himself witnessed. It packs quite a succession of wallops.
Director: Douglas McGrath
Cast: Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig
Released in the wake of the previous year’s monumentally acclaimed Capote, the Douglas McGrath–directed Infamous had a tough row to hoe as it essentially covers the same material — only without Philip Seymour Hoffman.
British thespian Toby Jones does shine as Truman Capote, though, creating a take on the celebrity writer that comes off as deep, heartfelt, and moving.
THE HIGH ROAD TO HELL by DICK HICKOCK
Remarkably, the latest addition to that tragedy-based library is The High Road to Hell, a recently discovered 1962 manuscript by killer Dick Hickock himself that the Wall Street Journal reported in March 2017 was likely purchased and hidden away by Capote.
As stunning as the news of the Hickock memoir is on its own, the mystery has since deepened as the killer claims in its pages that someone hired Perry and him to murder the Clutters for $5,000 — an entirely different version of the In Cold Blood account, in which the two criminals were looking for a safe on the family’s farm that didn’t exist.
Hickock reportedly hand-wrote the manuscript’s 200 pages from his death-row cell and mailed them to Kansas City journalist Mack Nations, who attempted to get a publishing deal with Random House that went nowhere in the light of Capote’s In Cold Blood triumph.
Hickock, along with Perry, hanged for his evil deeds in 1965. Mack Nations died in a car crash three years later. The High Road to Hell seemed to have been buried with them, until now.
As for the claims of the Clutter massacre being a contract killing, Hickcock mentions someone named Roberts paying for the job, but he never elaborates on who he was or why he wanted it done.
In addition, as no such claim ever came up during the trial, it stands to reason that this is a condemned man’s embellishment on reality. He certainly would have had reasons at that point to fabricate an alternate theory.
It’s unknown at present when, or if, The High Road to Hell will ever be officially published. True-crime fans worldwide anxiously await it … in hot blood.
Main photos: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock [Kansas State Police]