Cold Blooded

Cold Blooded examines the 959 murders that took place in this house
Clutter house (SundanceTV)

Last week I mentioned Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a candidate for the first modern true crime book. This week, I review a more recent look at the crime that inspired Capote. Cold Blooded is a four-episode documentary presented by SundanceTV.

The Crime and the Book

In the wee morning hours of Sunday, November 15, 1959, two ex-convicts broke into the home of Herb and Bonnie Clutter in the small village of Holcomb, Kansas. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith expected to find a safe stuffed with money. Instead, they left with barely $50 in cash, a pair of binoculars, and a transistor radio. They also left behind the dead bodies of Herb and Bonnie and two of their four children, Nancy and Kenyon (two older daughters no longer lived at home).

Capote read about the crime in the New York Times and decided it was the perfect subject for his concept of a “nonfiction novel,” a factual account using novelists’ techniques. He headed to Kansas with his friend, writer Harper Lee, in tow. The resulting book wasn’t published until 1965, six years after the crime. In Cold Blood was an instant sensation and a best-seller. It really put Capote on the map and made him famous. But not everyone back in Kansas was happy with the book or the 1967 film based on it.

Surviving family members felt the book and the film didn’t portray the Clutters’ lives fully or even accurately, and instead sensationalized their deaths. Some also felt that Capote was overly empathetic to Hickock and Smith at the expense of their victims. Nor surprising, perhaps, because the writer spent considerable time interviewing the two killers.

A New Documentary — Cold Blooded

SundanceTV released the four-episode documentary, Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, in 2017. It uses archival film, audio clips, and interviews with surviving friends and members of the Clutter family to tell a more complete story.

The first episode presents the Clutters in a level of detail that In Cold Blood didn’t. It deals with the murders, of course, but is sympathetic to the victims. Friends and relatives also relate their reaction to the news of the deaths.

Episode two follows the hunt for the killers. The names of Hickock and Smith emerged early in the investigation, offered up by a former cellmate of Hickock’s who found the reward money too tempting to resist. Identifying suspects was easier than finding them, although police arrested the pair in Las Vegas, Nevada barely just five weeks after they violated the Clutter home.

Hickock’s and Smith’s trial is the subject of the third episode. Held in Garden City, the largest town near Holcomb and the seat of Finney County, the trial was of immense local interest although it attracted little national attention at the time. Given that Hickock confessed shortly after his arrest, naming Smith as the actual triggerman, it was hardly surprising that the jury returned two convictions for first-degree murder. Judge Roland H. Tate sentenced the pair to death by hanging.

The final episode tracks the case through Hickock’s and Smiths appeals and execution. It also examines the effect that the book and film versions of In Cold Blood had on the Clutter family and the town of Holcomb.

Evaluation

Cold Blooded is a balanced account of a tragic event and how it affected the people involved. The participation, anonymously, of a Clutter granddaughter and great-granddaughter lend an air of accuracy that is sometimes missing from Capote’s book. Viewers see how the crime affected friends, family, and neighbors.

The series is also the story of the investigation. It focuses largely on Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Even though two suspects quickly emerged thanks to Hickock’s former cellmate, locating, tracking, and arresting the fugitives is an interesting story in itself.

Recommendation

The Clutter family that viewers meet in Cold Blooded is three-dimensional and human, more than simply victims.  It is a worthy epilogue to In Cold Blood and is worth watching.

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What Do We Like About True Crime?

Welcome to my blog post, Old Crime is New Again.  This blog is about true crime.  Since almost all good true crime stories are what we might call “old news,” I thought this would be a good title to capture the spirit of what I intend to write about.

Who doesn’t like a movie “based on a true story?”  And if the story is a whodunnit, people seem all the more interested.  You can find books, movies, podcasts, and blogs devoted to true crime literally everywhere.  You might notice that even though we tag the genre “true crime,” it might be more accurate to call it “true murder,” because murder cases make up the vast majority of true crime offerings, especially if they’re serial murders.

Why this fascination with what often are pretty awful events?  There are many theories.  Mental Floss posted an easy to read page on the subject in 2018 that is worth a look.

My own interest in the subject came from an early fascination with detective stories, notably the Sherlock Holmes books from Arthur Conan Doyle and the Perry Mason mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner.  It was a short leap from fictional crime to true crime.

Why do I like true crime?  For one, true crime stories are almost always about the investigation of a crime and, hopefully, prosecution of the criminal.  The puzzle-solving aspect of collecting evidence and putting together a court case appeals to me.

Crime, especially murder, is a messy disruption to the neat arrangement of life that offends my sense of order.  Reading (or watching or hearing) about the solution to the crime gives me a comfortable feeling that we can re-establish some semblance of order, even if things can’t be put back quite the way they were before.

It also helps that many true crime writers are quite good storytellers. If the story is good enough, even the most gruesome subject matter can be appealing.  And there are numerous examples of true crime classics that demonstrate superb storytelling.

Some credit Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood with being the first serious true crime book. Despite the factual problems that have emerged with this book recently, it remains a true crime classic. But true crime as long fascinated people. London’s Metropolitan Police Service established the Police Gazette in 1772 and the National Police Gazette debuted in America in 1845. These early publications along with numerous “true detective” magazines acquired a slightly seedy reputation over the years and often ventured into areas other than police matters.

Critics say non-fiction crime can be disrespectful to victims and their families. This is a valid concern, but factual reporting and some common sense can make it less of a problem.

At least one study suggests that consuming too much true crime can increase the fear of being a victim and cause a decrease in respect for the criminal justice system. Common sense is your friend here, too. As they say, everything in moderation.

So if you enjoy true crime, do so without guilt. Just don’t overdo it. And follow this blog for more posts on crime, justice, and the law.

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