Two Intruders, Four Victims, and A Brilliant Storyteller
I remember the chilly night in San Francisco, with the Bay Bridge off in the distance, when Truman Capote’s classic, In Cold Blood, lured me from a tiresome television program and into my reading chair wrapped in a blanket. I expected a fast-paced, true-crime thriller centered around a horrific multiple murder set in the idyllic day-to-day rhythm of Midwestern farm life. The author described the Clutter farm with pin-point precision, right down to the barn: “a mammoth Quonset hut; it brimmed with grain-Westland sorghum-and housed a dark, pungent hill of milo grain worth considerable money-a hundred thousand dollars.”
Capote started his story with a portrayal of Holcomb, Kansas, so accurate and compelling I felt I was reading a National Geographic article. But there was an uncomfortable edge to the narrative. By page fourteen, when he introduced the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, I could almost see Perry’s moist eyes while I watched him swallow those three aspirins before he reached into his crumpled pack of Pall Malls. At about the same time, I started to get an irrational fear that someone might be lurking in the bushes. Was it my imagination headed into overdrive, or was the story getting a little too close?
It seemed every creak of the nearby elm tree, a gust of wind, and even the clunk and clang of the neighbor taking his trash to the sidewalk unnerved me. Sure, I was home alone with doors locked and the front porch light on, but I began to believe it was possible that a psychopath with a shotgun and big knife could creep up behind me without my knowing.
The only mistake I made that night was picking up the best true-crime book of the century instead of a romance novel.
The more I read, the tighter I pulled the blanket around me as if a piece of wool could protect me from a deranged killer. My mind raced. What would I do if an intruder broke in like the two ex-cons who murdered the Clutters? My only weapon was a Wilson tennis racket. I could always call 911. But if I picked up the phone, I’d probably dial 921 by mistake, and by that time, the intruder would have me tied to a chair, handcuffed, and pleading for my life. But no matter. I kept reading.
The faster I turned the pages, the more my heart ached for this remarkably resilient family whose fate was sealed, the closer the killers came to the farm. I began to appreciate how much I knew these four individuals, not as characters in a book, but as real people with complex, rich lives. Mr. Clutter’s breakfast ritual of an apple and a glass of milk was different from my coffee and yogurt, but I liked his simplicity. Nancy was a teenage virtuoso who could sew, cook, crochet, play sports, and sing. Mrs. Clutter adored her family. Kenyon seemed an all-American teenager. I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller. Capote not only yanked me out of my world. He made me feel, see, touch, hear, and be in another world.
Then I remembered—another time. The night an intruder came into my life. I was a teenage babysitter, had just tucked the kids in bed, and was headed into the living room when I saw a scruffy-looking, dark intruder sitting in a chair holding a cane staring at me as if he belonged there. Who was this person, and how did he get in? Would he hurt the kids and me?
Instead, he wanted to talk. And talk. And talk. I listened, praying he’d go away. After about an hour, he picked up his cane and walked out. Indeed, I was luckier than the Clutters. But I’ll never forget the heart-stopping fear I felt when I came face to face with an intruder.