No Saints in Kansas
By Amy Brashear
320 pages, $18.99
Truman Capote left New York City for Holcomb, Kansas, as soon as he heard about the murder of a Holcomb farmer, his wife and the two youngest of their four children. In November 1959, just a year after publishing "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Capote was casting about for a new writing project, when the Clutter family massacre fell into his hands.
In "No Saints in Kansas," the Capote character with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, descends on Holcomb, determined to design a new literary form, the non-fiction novel, around the murders and their effect. "In Cold Blood" eventually took five years to complete and damaged his friendship with Lee, who expected much more credit from him for her contributions to the book.
Day after day, Lee, despite preparing her own work, "To Kill a Mockingbird" for publication, sat with Capote in Holcomb as he interviewed townspeople, amassing, by Capote's own count, 8,000 pages of research. In Brashear's reworking of the events, he even somehow obtains the diary of the murdered daughter, Nancy.
In order to claim such a breach of ethics and other shortcomings as Brashear sees them, she has her fictional protagonist, Carly Fleming, break into Capote's hotel room as well as asking her high school friends and some adults just how Capote conducts the interviews. Carly hears of $20 bills supposedly offered for talking to Capote but never sees any evidence of it.
She has him meet people at a local restaurant and talk nearly non-stop while Lee sits nearby, writing something, presumably what they manage to tell him. In "No Saints in Kansas," though, the Capote character ignores what the witnesses tell him and even pre-writes his accounts of some conversations. The real Capote addressed that issue while he lived by claiming to memorize entire long conversations, leave the scene immediately and write it all down, accurately. In "No Saints in Kansas," at least one character speaks of a discrepancy between what he says and what the author quotes him as saying.
Brashear has local police and the FBI try to oust the Capote character from the first news conference after the killings, but he manages to stay on. Being a short story writer and not a reporter, let alone a police reporter, he nevertheless asserts that he should be permitted at the briefings.
At the first such briefing Brashear stumbles a bit in her narrative. Carly hears a woman's voice, low and deep, with a strong Southern accent:
" ' Truman,' she scolds." Nothing more. So how is that one word to exemplify the strong Southern accent? Most of the time, however, Brashear keeps her writing clean. She also avoids overdoing Capote's eccentricities. His big cowboy hat and floor-length mufflers flipped around his neck three times are enough, along with the squeaky voice so familiar to television audiences in later years.
"No Saints in Kansas" does more than merely rework "In Cold Blood" for a younger audience. Brashear herself lived for several years a few miles from Holcomb and has been fascinated by the case and the unanswered questions about it that persist to this day, more than 50 years later. Her understanding of the place runs deep.
Her character Carly can be in the courthouse for the press briefing because her lawyer father is there. He has been assigned to defend the killer or killers, captured six weeks later in Las Vegas and executed the following April. Carly can remember visiting the Clutter family, since she is a classmate and close friend of the murdered daughter, Nancy.
As a high school student recently moved from Manhattan, she sees with a newcomer's clarity the barbarity just beneath the social surface of the small town in 1959. She must shop in another town to avoid the sarcasm and scorn directed at her and her family because of the father's assignment to defend the killers. Her friends also are ostracized as waves of innuendo, fear and panic roll through the town.
A classmate tries to goad Carly into slitting a cow's throat at a public slaughtering event. When Carly fails to do so, she still must use the knife thrust into her hand to skin the animal and to help move its legs up and down to speed the flow of blood from its neck. Brashear vividly describes the sensations of breaking the skin and the rest of the procedure.
Because Carly's mother knew John F. Kennedy during her college years, his decision to run for president in 1960 becomes part of the story. Aunt Trudy has stayed behind in New York. She claims, along with many others famous and unknown, to be the model for Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which Carly is reading. Aunt Trudy's notes to Carly end with, "P.S. Don't tell your mother." She even sends Carly a Chanel dress.
Aunt Trudy wins a bit of vindication when Richard Avedon, a huge fashion photographer at the time, arrives in town on assignment from "Life" magazine to photograph Capote and various locations and vaguely remembers Aunt Trudy.
The dialogue and setting remain mostly true to the realities of 1959. One or two colloquialisms from later decades creep in: "I'm good," for example, meaning "No, thank you," when offered food or drink. Very minor. The swift justice, with the two killers executed four months after their capture, cannot compare with the long years convicts spend on Death Row these days.
All in all, Amy Brashear offers an evenhanded account of the facts, as far as they are known, and a well-rounded portrait of American attitudes in 1959. She may or may not have been tempted to make Harper Lee more vivid a character but wisely resisted any such impulse. Any license she has taken fills gaps in the known narrative without distorting it. Published for young adults, "No Saints in Kansas" is solid enough for older readers, even those already familiar with the incident.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.