Truman Capote's tale of brutal killings 'glossed over failings of lead investigator'

  • @dusborne

Truman Capote is no longer around to care, but newly unearthed evidence in the case of the Kansas farmhouse murders that became his blockbuster book In Cold Blood casts fresh doubt on his famous claim that it was “immaculately factual” from front cover to back.

A cache of documents originally held by the Kansas Bureau of Investigations (KBI) suggest that the author, who was acclaimed for pioneering the non-fiction novel and a new genre of long-form journalism, may have massaged the facts in at least two chapters, possibly to cast the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, in a better light.

While critics and literary scholars have tried to pick at Capote’s version of the 1959 murder of Herb Clutter, a farmer in Holcomb, Kansas, and of his wife and two children, almost from the moment of its release in 1966, it was the KBI that consistently spoke up for its accuracy. Yet the debate has never quite died and will surely now be reignited by the discovery of the new papers, first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Notably, they suggest that Capote was incorrect when he said that Mr Dewey and his team responded instantly when, after 14 days of stumbling in the dark, they received a tip-off that two drifters, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were responsible. The men were eventually convicted and executed. The book says an agent was dispatched immediately to investigate. The papers say Mr Dewey dithered for five days.

The former prosecutor in the case, Duane West, told the Journal that Mr Dewey was at first dismissive of the tip-off, which had come from a prison inmate named Floyd Wells, preferring to believe a local killed the Clutters. “Alvin Dewey pooh-poohed the Wells tip,” Mr West noted. “He said Wells was a no-good criminal who had made the whole thing up.”

It has long been known that Capote built a relationship with Mr Dewey that paid off handsomely in terms of access. He was given all the KBI files for a week along with his research associate Harper Lee and was allowed exclusively to interview the two killers as they awaited trial and execution. In return, it seems, he helped turn Dewey into the unimpeachable hero of the case. That that relationship may have strayed beyond modern boundaries of ethical journalism is further made clear by papers showing also that when he negotiated a contract with Columbia Pictures for what was to be the first of three Hollywood films, he insisted that Mr Dewey’s wife be hired by the studio as a consultant.

The new revelations come just weeks after the exhumation of the bodies of Smith and Hickock at the request of prosecutors in Florida, who believe that they may have been responsible for the killings of another family near Sarasota in the weeks between the Clutter killings and their arrest. Florida investigators are hoping to use DNA analysis to link the men with the case.