February 12, 2013

In Cold Blood might not be as “immaculately factual” as Truman Capote would have had you believe


Truman Capote

The Wall Street Journal has reported that despite Truman Capote’s assertion that his famous book In Cold Blood was entirely accurate in its reporting, newly discovered documents indicate that two chapters have considerable discrepancies with what actually took place.

The bestselling book follows the investigation of a quadruple murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, which Capote found out about from a brief New York Times article, prompting him to travel to the small town of Holcomb to find out more about the bloody events. He did exhaustive research on the murders and ensuing investigation, and interviewed locals with his good friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee until they had amassed 8,000 pages of notes. In a 1966 interview for the New York Times, he told George Plimpton that his account was “immaculately factual,” a claim that’s been undermined by the new cache of documents found in the files of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

The point of contention, says WSJ reporter Kevin Helliker, has to do with a pivotal juncture in the KBI’s investigation:

When 19 days of utter bafflement ended with an informant stepping forward and naming the killers, the KBI didn’t snap to action, according to the new documents. It didn’t, as Mr. Capote’s book says, dispatch an agent that very night to the Kansas farmhouse where one of the suspects had been living with his parents.

Instead, the KBI waited five days to visit that farmhouse, according to the KBI documents.

The details are to be found in papers from the Clutter case that a now-deceased KBI agent, Harold Nye, carried home with him years ago. Those documents, reviewed in August by the Journal, are the subject of litigation between the adult son of Mr. Nye, who hopes to publish or sell them, and the KBI, which claims to own the material.

Nye’s son and Gary MacAvoy, owner of a memorabilia store in Seattle, argues that the KBI is trying to keep the documents under wraps because they “expose unflattering truths about the agency.” The prosecutor of the infamous case, Duane West, agrees that events didn’t unfold as Capote described them, with Detective Alvin Dewey, Jr. cracking the case. In fact, he contends, Dewey didn’t believe the informant who identified the killers. Meanwhile, former KBI director Larry Welch is defending Dewey, insisting, “In this day and age, we can’t even recreate the proper context for these events … Alvin Dewey was a friend of mine. He was very professional in everything he did.”

The state court has obtained a restraining order preventing the documents in question from being published or sold. Despite the fact that they would bolster West’s argument that In Cold Blood is flawed and biased to favor the people that Capote liked personally, he thinks they should remain out of the public eye, out of respect for the Clutter family.



Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.