Murder Tourism in Middle America

Justin St. Germain

Just west of Holcomb, Kansas, on the lonesome wheat plains Truman Capote famously described, stands what was once the world’s largest slaughterhouse. It was the first thing we found in our search for the Clutter farm, on a Saturday in June so hot it felt like being ironed. The Tyson facility was squat, bland, and beige, designed to mask its purpose, the killing of six thousand cattle a day, each shot once in the head. If this place had existed in 1959, In Cold Blood would start with the abattoir at the edge of town; subtlety was not Capote’s strong point. As it is, the book begins with grain elevators rising like Greek temples from the plains, a simile as subtle as a neon sign.

We stopped at the gates of the slaughterhouse. Even inside the car, the air smelled like death. The vegan riding shotgun didn’t react how I would’ve expected, not a word about that documentary on the beef industry: she just said we must’ve missed the turn. She was right. We doubled back and found Holcomb proper, still pretty much as Capote describes it, “an aimless congregation of buildings” wedged between Route 50 and the Arkansas River, split by the tracks of the Santa Fe Railway. In Cold Blood opens with an objective and somewhat dry portrait of the town, its climate, landscape, layout, and location—“almost the exact middle” of America. A few things had changed in fifty years. A modest park at the city limits, across the street from a new school, was dedicated to the memory of the Clutter family. The former Hartman’s Café, the gathering place and gossip node Capote frequented while writing the book, had become a Mexican restaurant called El Rancho, a signal of the demographic shift brought on by the meat industry. South of town, across a ditch that used to be the river, steam plumed from a palatial electric plant. Otherwise, Holcomb looked the same as the rest of Kansas, hot and brown and level, all silos and grain elevators, an architecture of attempts to break the flatness.

Locals might be used to it, might not feel our vague unease at having no geography to contain us. We were tourists, full of assumptions, seeing everything relative to our frame of reference. We’d come from Albuquerque, a city at the base of the Sandia range, in a part of America where the skyline looks like the screen of a heart monitor, and so the flat ring of this strange horizon seemed to us like time itself, a noose drawing tight.

A week earlier, Bonnie—my copilot and de facto girlfriend—had asked if I wanted to drive with her to Minnesota. Her brother had been picked up by a pro soccer team outside the Twin Cities and needed someone to deliver his car. It was a bad idea, objectively, a four-day road trip with someone I shouldn’t even have been dating; but it was summer in Albuquerque, all glare and ennui, a good time for bad ideas. Google Maps suggested a route that ran fifty miles from Holcomb. I said yes, as long as we could make a detour. She agreed to accompany me to a murder scene much more readily than I’d expected. Bonnie was up for anything, a trait that had attracted me to her, and that now made me keep her at arm’s length, unable to imagine a relationship.

Going to Holcomb was a pilgrimage of sorts. I’d been writing a book about my mother’s murder for the last five years, and to write about murder is to live in the long shadow of In Cold Blood. Capote’s seminal book had become an obsession of mine. I’d wanted to write a response, a counterargument, a true murder story that made a gesture his didn’t: to present the victim as a person, not a narrative prop, and to treat their death itself as tragic, not as an occasion for a larger tragedy. A printed copy of the manuscript sat on the passenger’s floorboard of our car; the final edits were due in a week, and I’d been reading it out loud to Bonnie on the trip, listening for false notes. It was scheduled for release in a year—from Random House, Capote’s publisher—and, save for my editor and agent and a few friends who’d read an early draft, Bonnie was its first audience.

Somehow the contents of Capote’s book, and what I’d read about the writing of it, failed to warn me how drastically plans can change on trips to Kansas. We’d set out on an impromptu road trip to deliver a car, but, earlier that day, as the Rockies dropped us onto the plains, like eggs onto a griddle, it had happened to us. She was driving like shit, playing a Philip Glass song about Wichita that sounded like madmen fighting a piano duel. Other cars became an event, a mystery of source and destination, and we wondered who lived in those distant houses shielded by trees, whether and how anyone could. We talked about time and technology, how we were piloting a dinosaur-powered vehicle across the floor of an ancient sea, what future civilizations would find here—all the insipid shit you can only say earnestly in a moment like that. Beyond her face, fields rippled into the distance, where in that plane of wheat I saw the curvature of the earth. We engaged in risky sex acts as we drove. The past got lost in the apocalyptic flatness, along with the reasons we were there, and why we shouldn’t do something doomed and stupid, like fall in love.

• • •

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read In Cold Blood and know it’s the most important work of American nonfiction, the genesis of the true crime genre, a staple of high school and university reading lists. It boasts millions of copies in print, and has inspired multiple feature films, as well as a play, an opera, a hard-to-find documentary, a bad graphic novel, a book-length critical treatment, dozens of dissertations and theses, thousands of articles. Even now, fifty years after its publication, In Cold Blood has been in the news twice recently, first because the killers were dug up for DNA tests attempting to link them to another murder, and then because one of the detectives died and left secret case files to his son, who is—of course—writing a book.

The origin myth of In Cold Blood, which Capote himself carefully crafted, goes something like this: In November of 1959, Capote read a minor article in the New York Times about the murder of a Kansas farmer and his family. He’d been looking for a subject befitting a new narrative form he called the “nonfiction novel”; the unsolved killing of the Clutters fit the bill. Capote went to Holcomb and followed the case for five years, from the funeral through the arrest of the accused killers, their trial and appeals, finally their hanging. The book was serialized in the New Yorker in 1965, released soon after by Random House to sensational acclaim, and instantly became a classic.

Some of that’s true and some isn’t. For starters—and despite what he would later claim—Capote didn’t go to Kansas to write about a murder case. He didn’t even go to write a book. His original pitch to the New Yorker was a piece about Holcomb’s reaction to the killings, the fear and suspicion and collective sense of shock, a sleepy town rocked by a gruesome act of violence.

And he didn’t go to Kansas alone; he had help in the form of his childhood friend Harper Lee. Capote understood that, as an acquaintance put it, “people wouldn’t be happy to have this little gnome in his checkered vest running around asking questions about who’d murdered whom.” Lee was awaiting the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, and presumably needed a distraction, so she volunteered to go with him. She helped in various ways, taking notes, attending functions, sitting in on interviews; he would later refer to her as his “assistant researchist,” but her most important contribution was to grease the skids for her old friend. Lee, a warm and charming Southern woman, fit in with the locals in a way Capote, the pint-size dandy, reedy-voiced and effeminate, decidedly did not. He would later dedicate In Cold Blood partly to Lee, but he didn’t mention her contributions in the acknowledgments, and she is referred to only once in the book, as “a woman reporter.”

Five weeks into the trip, Capote and Lee joined a crowd waiting outside the courthouse in Garden City for the accused killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who’d been arrested in Las Vegas and brought back to Kansas for trial. In Cold Blood observes the scene from the perspective of two stray cats, a peculiar choice for a work Capote would later call “immaculately factual.” Silence falls over the crowd as police cruisers pull to the curb and the suspects perp walk up the stairs, blinking in the camera flash. The cats don’t notice Capote’s reaction when he first sees Smith, diminutive and doe-eyed and brooding, so much like himself—there but for the grace of God went Truman. The moment everything changed: Capote’s plan for the book, his career, his life. Lee would later call it “the beginning of a great love affair.”

• • •

My copilot shared a name with the Clutter matriarch; beyond that coincidence, Bonnie would object to any portrayal I give. Slim, white, pretty, brunette, not unlike Capote’s description of Smith: dark, moist eyes, black hair, “a changeling’s face.” I’d known her for six months, give or take; the duration of our relationship, like its exact nature, was a matter of dispute. She’d been married when we met, to a man who’d abused her, knowledge that evoked my mother’s abusers and far too much of the fervid rage I’d tried to bury; she was still married, in fact, although she preferred to say “separated.” She was a graduate student at the university where I taught; I preferred to specify that she wasn’t my student. Then there was her son, the only incontrovertible fact between us: having had my share of stepdads, the last of whom murdered my mother, it was one of the things I’d sworn I’d never be. I’d already become most of the others.

Unsurprisingly, we disagreed about who was supposed to get directions to River Valley Farm, former home of the Clutter family, scene of their grisly murders. Our phones had long since lost service. So we crept the streets of Holcomb in our borrowed silver Saturn, looking for a treelined driveway matching Capote’s description. I’ll save you the trouble: from old Route 50, go south on Main, west on Oak, follow it to the end.

We stopped at the entrance, where a metal gate hung open next to a pink-
lettered sign prohibiting trespassing, then parked across the street and stood in a searing wind, wiping dust from our eyes, staring out across a wheat field at the house half-hidden by a shelterbelt. The night of the murders, Capote writes, the killers stopped in the driveway and stared in awe at the farm, the elms lining the driveway, the barns and fields, the green lawn and handsome white house. In his confession, Smith recalls thinking, “It was sort of too impressive.”

Not anymore. All that irrigated wheat slowly sucked the aquifer dry, and drought did a number on Capote’s beloved elms, to which he devoted nearly as much attention as he gave the victims: they were all dying or dead or stumps. The house was just another sensible Kansas farmhouse with a brown and patchy lawn. The disappointment reminded me of my hometown in Arizona, which tourists visit to see the O.K. Corral, where three men were shot dead, and now throngs of midwesterners and Germans mill among the effigies, wondering why they traveled so far to see an alley by the highway. Another thing I’d sworn I’d never be: a fucking tourist.

On Oak Street, as we left, three men we’d passed on the way to the Clutter house were still slouched against the bedsides of a Chevy truck, tilting bottles of Bud Light and watching us. As we approached, the biggest of them walked out into the road and raised a hand. I stopped and rolled down the window. His words came in with the dust.

“You got no brake lights.”

“Stay here,” I said to Bonnie. The Samaritan followed me to the back of the car. He was the size of a small bear and grimy in the way I imagined farmers were. The other two men—a shifty-eyed teenager and an old man who could have been whittled from a twig—stayed by the truck. I yelled to Bonnie to press the brake. I meant for her to slide over into the driver’s seat, but she got out of the goddamned car, big sunglasses and a little black shirt and cutoffs that clung to her ass, the source of high school nicknames. As the men watched her, I thought fleetingly of the two ex-cons breaking into that house up the road, all those years ago, and failing to get what they wanted.

The lights didn’t work. The big guy said it was probably a fuse, mentioned an AutoZone in Garden City. I thanked him. My hand was on the car door when he said he’d seen us taking pictures. He stood behind me, thumbs in his belt loops, legs spread, like a gunfighter.

“We’re just passing through.” It seemed like something I was supposed to say, a line remembered from a script, what the stranger in town says to the sheriff. In the ensuing pause I tried to shut myself up. “I’m a big fan of the book.”

The teenager, swear to God, spat into the dust. The old man’s squint clamped down a little more; I remembered from something I’d read that Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, Bobby, still lived in Holcomb. The Samaritan jerked a massive hand in the direction of the house. “You can go on up the driveway if you want.”

“Don’t want to bother nobody,” I said. The grammar of the rural poor sounded condescending, even though it had once been mine.

“Nobody to bother,” he said. “I’m right here.”

“You live there?”

“Yep.” He shook my hand and said his name was Brian. “This happens all the time.”

In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of Kansas, but we turned the car around.

• • •

The first time I read In Cold Blood, for a college class, I admired it: the luridness of the story, the elliptical grace of the prose, the coy withholding that wound the plot. But Capote’s portrayal of the victims bothered me. He describes the Clutters clinically, superficially, by heights and weights and ages, hair and eye color, the kind of details you get in an autopsy report. The book’s subtitle is A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, yet it devotes just 35 of 343 pages to the victims. So much for consequences.

Holcombites took exception to Capote’s treatment of the Clutters, especially Bonnie. In Cold Blood paints her as timorous, frail, depressive, frequently institutionalized. Many who knew her claimed Capote had exaggerated her mental illness. If so, it worked: Bonnie comes off as more sympathetic than her husband or children, more human and complex. Capote plays the others to type: Herb the teetotaling Methodist, a successful rancher who “cut a man’s-man figure” and was “always certain of what he wanted from the world”; Nancy the straight-A student, the class president, the “town darling” who wore her boyfriend’s signet ring and helped protégés bake pies; Kenyon the gangly, rambunctious teenager, building and inventing, scared of girls. Not Bonnie. She was afflicted by an unspeakable sadness, full of doubt and anxiety, possessing a rich and dark and unknowable inner life. She dreamed of being a nurse, suffered crippling postnatal depressions, once spent two months in Wichita away from her family, which she enjoyed so much the guilt drove her back. She refused to cook, slept in a separate room from her husband; was the only Clutter who drank coffee, and may have been the source of the mysterious cigarette smell in the house; she was prone to cryptic, ominous remarks. She’s the best character in the book besides Smith.

Her family disagreed. Bonnie’s younger brother was still outraged forty years later, when he granted his only interview on the subject. And on the fiftieth anniversary of the murders, Herb Clutter’s niece wrote an essay for her tiny local newspaper in New Mexico, detailing her response to reading In Cold Blood: “The Clutters became cardboard figures, hardly more than a backdrop for Capote’s sympathetic depiction of the killers.” The surviving Clutter daughters, both of whom remain in Kansas, claimed Capote had told them he was writing a “tribute” to their family and accused him of “grossly misrepresent[ing]” their parents and siblings for profit.

Imagine how that feels, your murdered mother misportrayed. Millions of books, multiple movies, half a million Google hits for her name. All of it wrong. The surviving Clutters made a family scrapbook to preserve their version of her. But what good is a version nobody reads?

• • •

We passed between the rows of withering elms, which no longer cast any shade, and into a clearing. To the left stood a silo, a barn, and a mobile home with the wheels on; to the right, the Clutter house. Close up, it still looked like Capote describes it, although his description is imprecise; he calls it a “handsome white house,” but the first story was pale yellow brick. It had been updated over the years, with new white siding and a split-log fence, a satellite perched on the steep angle of a red-shingled roof. In 1959, it was the kind of house that signified wealth. But to us, and Capote—whose Gothic descriptions of the farm focus on the elms, the wind, the bloodstains on the walls—the house was remarkable only because of the story it suggested: Two men parked where we were, in the middle of the night, arguing in whispers, building up the nerve to take a shotgun from the backseat and cross that lawn, to that side door, in search of a safe full of money that didn’t exist. The victims inside, asleep and unaware. I thought of the place where my mother died, a trailer in the desert a thousand miles away. The last time I went there, when I was writing my book, all trace of her had been erased. Was that better?

Back on Oak, the men were where we’d left them, and what had seemed strange now seemed sinister, their watching, our repeated trips up and down the street, this absurd ritual of visiting the house. I slowed the car to a crawl, cracked the window, yelled a thanks. The big guy nodded and pointed to the beer in his hand. I declined the offer and kept going.

“I couldn’t tell if they hated us,” Bonnie said.

Later I would learn on the Internet that the big guy’s name is spelled Bryan, that his parents bought the house for a dollar after the second owner killed himself, that they briefly offered five-dollar tours until neighbors objected, that they listed the house at auction in 2006 but didn’t get a satisfactory bid, that he sometimes shoots guns in the air to warn off trespassers. I don’t blame him.

• • •

Capote acted as if he’d invented the true crime genre with In Cold Blood. He didn’t; it dates back at least as far as Lizzie Borden. He probably borrowed the “nonfiction novel” approach from Lillian Ross’s Picture, and he wasn’t the first person to focus on the murderer, either—Meyer Levin did that nine years earlier, with Compulsion, his historical novel based on the Leopold-Loeb case. But In Cold Blood was more successful than its predecessors, and far more influential. In a 1997 article on murder in America, Eric Schlosser traces a trend of murderer-protagonists back to Capote’s portrayal of Smith. Schlosser attributes the trend to curiosity: “When the murderer is the protagonist of a story, we can vicariously experience that power.” We want to know how it feels to kill someone.

In Cold Blood tells us exactly that, in Smith’s words, a little more than halfway through, textbook timing for a tragic climax. In the backseat of a police cruiser somewhere in Arizona, Smith finally narrates that dreadful night in Holcomb. He tries to explain why he did it. In his version, he and Hickock lock the Clutters in the bathroom and search the house for the safe. Instead they find forty dollars, a radio, and a pair of binoculars. Smith takes these outside to the car and stands for a moment in the driveway, looking up at the moon, savoring the November chill. He thinks about leaving, walking out beneath the elms and to the highway, hitching a ride. “It was like I wasn’t part of it,” he says. “More as though I was reading a story. And I had to know what was going to happen. The end.” So he goes inside and slits Herb Clutter’s throat. He says he didn’t mean to do it: “I didn’t realize what I’d done till I heard the sound.”

He never said that. Capote wrote the last line into Smith’s confession, the only account of the murders the book contains, a passage that makes Smith seem reluctant, full of regret, almost humane: sparing Nancy from Hickock’s plan to rape her, placing a pillow under Kenyon’s head, putting Herb out of his misery with a shotgun blast. Esquire sent a reporter, Philip K. Tompkins, to Kansas after the book’s release to investigate its accuracy. He compared Capote’s version of Smith’s confession to the transcribed testimony of both detectives in the car, as well as to the transcript of the confession itself. Only in the book does Smith express regret, or mention any emotional response at all. “To judge from his confession,” Tompkins writes, “Perry Smith was an obscene, semiliterate, and cold-blooded killer.” Smith’s autobiographical narrative, written for a court psychiatrist and quoted at length by Capote, suggests the same: it’s aggrieved, incoherent, brimming with rage; at one point, he brags about having thrown a policeman off a bridge. (Hickock’s statement also belies his characterization as the less interesting of the killers: he seems remarkably candid and self-aware.) Later in the book, Smith tells a friend visiting him in jail that he’s not sorry, that nothing about the murders bothers him a bit.

People who knew Smith—the detectives, fellow convicts, his sister—spoke of him with contempt or fear. Most who met both killers preferred Hickock. Not Capote. In Cold Blood portrays Hickock as a pedophile and a coward, a lifelong convict with a disfigured face, a small-time crook in over his head. Smith gets the sympathy, as well as the space: more than one hundred pages, far more than Capote gives anybody else. In his biography of Capote, Gerald Clarke remarks on the “many unsettling similarities” between the author and his subject: both raised in broken homes and orphanages, both small and boyish, both bookish and artistic. Because he saw himself in Smith, and found that irresistible—a KBI agent later claimed they had hallway trysts on death row—Capote took a thirty-one-year-old felon others described as a dwarfish sociopath and portrayed him as a frustrated and mistreated dreamer, a guitar-strumming poet prone to fantasies of Mexican treasure and a big yellow bird that protected him in his sleep, a murderous Peter Pan.

From the beginning, Capote conceived of the book as a tragedy: hence the silos rising like Greek temples from the plains, the minor Holcombites who act as chorus, its classical story arc and emphasis on fate. Hickock is the second actor, the cops and justice system the antagonists, the Clutters vehicles for the hero’s hamartia. The hero is Perry Smith.

• • •

We had to make Salina, still halfway across the state, that night, and the sun was setting and our brake lights didn’t work, and I didn’t like the sound of six more hours on an interstate when nobody could see us slowing down. We stopped outside the old Holcomb School, where the Clutter children went, and I kneeled on the hot asphalt, pulling fuses from the box beneath the dashboard. I didn’t know which fuse did what and we didn’t have the owner’s manual and it wasn’t my car. The fuses came out one by one, and everything turned on and off—the radio, the blinkers—but the brake lights refused to kindle, and as the pavement began to cook my knees, déjà vu set in. I had never been to Kansas with another man’s wife in yet another man’s car, and I thought it felt familiar because that’s the kind of situation I get myself into—the kind that’s hard to explain—until I remembered where I’d seen this street before: on the cover of my worn paperback copy of In Cold Blood, which I’d lent to Bonnie.

She hadn’t read the book until the week before. I’d read it five or six times, growing angrier with each read, more outraged by its moral project—the glorification of a half-wit murderer—and its legacy, how it made focusing on killers the default mode of murder narratives, laid a cornerstone of murderer worship in American culture. Now here I was, on a trip to Holcomb, reading to her my portrayal of a dead woman she would never meet, and it seemed absurd that I had never felt the weight of that before: a whole world of potential readers out there who would know my mother only from my book. What a thing to do to the dead, what an act of hubris: to preserve your impression of them for posterity, knowing they can’t defend themselves. The same thing Capote did to the Clutters.

I had justified it during the writing process by telling myself I was honoring my mother, that her story would serve a greater purpose, call attention to the epidemic of domestic violence in America. But that was a hollow and self-serving rationale. My name would be on the cover, my picture on the jacket, the royalty checks in my name. I knew my book would never be as successful or widely read as In Cold Blood, wouldn’t do much to change the cultural conversation about murder. Nobody wants to read about a victim; it forces us to imagine sharing their fate. And what good is a response nobody reads?

Capote must have reassured himself that he had a higher purpose: to advance an argument against capital punishment. The last section of In Cold Blood pleas Smith’s case to escape the noose. But Capote also needed him to hang, because he needed an ending. Friends later remembered Capote’s frustration in the years Smith spent on death row, waiting for appeals and stays of execution. An acquaintance told George Plimpton about a dinner in New York a few years into the writing of In Cold Blood at which Capote talked about the killers—“he seemed clearly in love with” Smith—and said the book was done except for the ending. “But it can’t be published until they’re executed,” Capote said. “So I can hardly wait.” At a party two years later, just after Smith’s last appeal had failed, another partygoer heard Capote say, “I’m beside myself with joy!”

• • •

At the AutoZone in Garden City I scraped a bird carcass out of the Saturn’s grille, replaced the brake light fuse—which didn’t fix the problem—and asked the clerk if he knew how to get to the graveyard. He sent us to the wrong one. Bonnie got a miraculous bar of service and searched on her phone for nearby cemeteries while I watched the setting sun toast the fields of wheat and texturize the land around us, shadow fingers reaching out from tombstones.

Bonnie announced triumphantly that she had found it. She’d grown invested in our tour through Holcomb; most people would have thought it was macabre, but she’s a poet, prone to finding romance in unexpected places, like graveyards where two mismatched lovers searched for murdered strangers. A few highway ramps and there we were, at Valley View. At least Capote gets the cemetery right: an oasis of trees and grass, “a good refuge from a hot day.” As far as I had seen it was the greenest place in Kansas. We parked and went looking for the Clutters.

• • •

In Cold Blood never says outright who did what. Smith’s confession claims that he killed Herb and Kenyon, and Hickock killed the women. Smith later admits to committing all four murders, but Capote suggests he does it out of sympathy for Hickock’s mother. Later still, Smith tells a friend visiting him in jail that he killed the entire family. The lead detective in the case, Alvin Dewey, believed the original confession, but said Capote thought Smith killed them all. The book itself leaves the question unanswered. It must not have seemed important.

Capote did attempt to answer the question of why. A doctor quoted in the book claims that Herb Clutter represented everyone who’d ever wronged Smith, that he saw his entire past of pain and alienation writ large in his victim. Capote theorizes that Smith suffered a “brain explosion” and never made a decision at all: I didn’t realize what I’d done till I heard the sound. The book suggests it was Smith’s destiny to kill: a child of abuse and divorce and neglect, cursed by poverty, forged into a violent criminal by a society that gave him no other choice. Smith himself says it was at least partly a rational decision—before the murders, he and Hickock discussed their options—but that he did it because he was mad at Hickock for being wrong about the safe, and disgusted by his partner’s desire to rape a teenage girl.

But Capote actively conceals the most likely motive: Smith had fallen in love in Kansas. Ralph F. Voss devotes a chapter of his book on In Cold Blood to its homosexual subtext, which was noted by critics after publication, but overshadowed then and now by the brouhaha over the term “nonfiction novel.” Hickock and Smith were former prison cellmates. Throughout the book, Perry is repeatedly referred to as a “punk” and described in feminine terms; he rarely shows interest in women and seems jealous about Hickock’s liaisons; Hickock calls Smith “honey,” “sugar,” and “baby”; at one point, they “pick up” a German lawyer and his male companion in an Acapulco bar and spend a few days with them; when the German gives Smith his sketchbook as a parting gift, it includes “nude studies” of Hickock. The two killers share hotel rooms all over America and Mexico, and stay together long after they have no apparent reason to. Homosexuality remains a subtext only because Capote refuses to acknowledge it. He deflected attention from sexuality while promoting the book, too, insisting in interviews that there was no sexual relationship between Hickock and Smith. But Capote was, above all, a savvy self-marketer, and he’d seen his previous books criticized for gay content; he knew that, in the mainstream America of the midsixties, having a gay protagonist would cripple the book’s commercial prospects. (The same audience had no qualms about murderer-protagonists: Robert Bloch’s Psycho—and Hitchcock’s film adaptation—had proven that a few years earlier.)

In Smith’s account of the night of the murders, when Hickock says he wants to rape Nancy, Smith replies, “You’ll have to kill me first.” Voss suggests that Smith stopped him not out of moral outrage, as the book claims, but because he was jealous, which would explain “one of the great ironies within In Cold Blood”: Smith spares Nancy from rape moments before one of them shoots her in the head. In Voss’s reading, Smith’s tale becomes a different kind of tragedy, more Shakespeare than Sophocles, a story less about fate than it is about love: betrayal, jealous rage, the consequences of one catastrophic choice.

• • •

The cemetery was windless and calm, dappled by sunlight slanting through the trees. Near a junction in the path, Bonnie spotted the grave of Alvin Dewey, flanked by his wife and father. A moment later, she called me over to another grave. Capote writes that the four victims share a single stone, “in a far corner of the cemetery—beyond the trees, out in the sun, almost at the wheat field’s bright edge.” If that had ever been true, it wasn’t anymore. A cypress tree draped the grave in shade, and the dead stretched for fifty yards in every direction. Herb and Bonnie Clutter were buried together under one marker, their children beneath smaller satellites on either side, all three stones tinted mauve in the dusk. Pinwheels spun on the kids’ graves, plastic flowers for the parents.

In Cold Blood ends at the Clutter grave. Dewey is weeding his father’s plot when he sees a friend of Nancy’s. They talk briefly about how much has changed since the murders, and afterward he walks out beneath the trees, “leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.” That last line always rang false to me, the melodramatic personification and sloppy second “wind,” Capote’s love of alliteration left unchecked by an editor. Maybe that’s because it was; the moment never happened.

Capote altered facts and fabricated so much of the book. A few pages earlier, he shows Smith on the gallows, apologizing for what he’s done, an apology none of the other people there recorded; according to some witnesses, Capote had left by then, unable to watch. Still, somehow the ending seems most significant. Capote couldn’t bring himself to end with the hangings, a passage supposedly so difficult to write that it paralyzed his hand. He said he wanted “to bring everything back full circle, to end with peace.” After hundreds of pages about the killer, his hard-luck childhood and thwarted ambitions and plight on death row, Capote couldn’t end with the book’s last vision of Smith, his dead feet dangling from the gallows. So instead he leaves us with a gesture to the victims, a sentimental scene that never happened, one final look at their resting place.

Walking through the graveyard, on the way back to the car, I said I felt like a tourist. “Maybe it’s good to be remembered,” Bonnie said, and I wondered how a person could be so unapologetically herself. We talked about what we’d want done with us when we were dead, funerals and gravestones, whether or not it mattered, and how we might need to decide soon, because we were about to drive three hundred miles through the night with no brake lights. A joke, but I thought about it: we could die on the road, wind up buried in a place like this, leave our story to somebody else’s telling.

• • •

In Cold Blood made Capote a millionaire, the toast of New York, famous in a way few writers have ever been. It also destroyed him. He spent the next two decades descending into addiction and self-caricature, reaching his nadir when he appeared on a live TV show, having not slept in days and high as wheat in June, and predicted his own suicide. “I’ll kill myself,” he said, “without meaning to.” And he did, five years later, in a friend’s guest room in LA. He never finished another real book. In 1966, days after the release of In Cold Blood, Capote was already saying that if he’d known what the future held, he would never have stopped in Holcomb: “I would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell.”

He was probably exaggerating. But you wonder what would have happened if he’d never come to Kansas. Some rare moments feel significant even as they happen: you see the future stretch ahead, flat and forbidding, like a highway across the plains. Capote had one in Garden City, on the courthouse steps. Smith had one on the Clutters’ lawn before he killed them. I had one leaving the cemetery, watching the wheat bend in the wind just like Capote writes and realizing that whatever was happening between Bonnie and me was beyond our control. That night, in the last hotel room left in Salina, we threw our bags down and fucked like we were about to die, and in the aftermath I told her nobody had ever wanted her as much as I did, and she took that to mean I always would, although I didn’t mean that at all. We made it to Minnesota the next day. Two years later, we did that drive again, to start a new life there, and six months later Bonnie passed through Kansas while leaving me, and six months after that I drove through yet again, in a panic, with a ring in my pocket. Capote got one thing right: there are only two kinds of endings, death and the ones we invent.

Bonnie wrote notes for a poem on the trip. They end with a moment that happened a few days after Kansas, when we followed my vet-student cousin into a basement meat locker where a dead donkey dangled from the ceiling, eyes and mouth stuffed white with wax. I think Bonnie liked the idea of coming full circle, from the slaughterhouse to the meat locker—they even smelled the same—and the strangeness of the moment. I touched her shoulder and she felt a shock and swore she saw the donkey sway. I just liked the sense of peace. The donkey was blind, mute, storyless. Nobody knew who’d killed it.

Justin St. Germain is the author of the memoir Son of a Gun. He teaches at Oregon State.