And Every Word is True by Gary McAvoy (Literati, 2019)

Some books you can’t wait to finish; some books you never want to end. For me, Gary McAvoy’s rivetting new book, And Every Word is True, was so intriguing that I did not want it to finish it. Granted, true crime is my favorite genre, and any book about Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood is going to lure my attention. But McAvoy’s book goes beyond the mystique of the Clutter crime, committed in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959; it opens the door to an even more lurid case that may exist beyond the original story of horror in a small community. McAvoy, and Ronald Nye, the son of former Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) director, Harold R. Nye, unwittingly stumbled upon a possible cover up in the actual motive for the murder of the Clutter family.

In the first chapter of  And Every Word is True, McAvoy reports the instantaneous success of In Cold Blood from its first serialized appearance in The New Yorker magazine in 1965. Critics hailed it as a sensation, and the first printing of 240,000   sold out in no time. McAvoy reports, “Since then the book has never been out of print, having sold millions of copies. Even today it is required reading in countless high schools throughout the world and is used as case study material for college-level courses in fields such as law, criminology, and sociology. In Cold Blood is commonly ranked among the Top 100 best American books of all time in countless surveys (categorized as either fiction or nonfiction).” (p.21)

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So, why does In Cold Blood remain a best seller half a century after its initial publication? The answer is complex. First, every time I read Part I of In Cold Blood, the Clutter family springs to life again, as if they have stepped out of their graves. The depiction of the teenager, Nancy, teaching a local girl how to bake a cherry pie, Kenyon, the son, sneaking a cigarette, Mrs. Clutter,  shut-in her bedroom, suffering from acute depression, and the upstanding citizen, Mr. Clutter, crunching into an apple as he goes out to the barn to check on the livestock allows the reader to become a voyeur on a mid-twentieth century farming family. The opening chapters of the story show unsuspecting people going about their business, never dreaming that this day is to be the last day of their lives.

The killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, are described in even more detail than their victims, largely because Capote was able to cultivate a relationship with both of these men. Although they are dubbed “monsters” by the Kansas community, Capote writes about the personal hardships as events that twisted Smith and Hickock into desperados, allowing the reader to regard them not as monsters but as tragically flawed human beings. To create sympathetic characters out of cruel and callous killers can be achieved only by the most gifted of  writers.

Another reason for the success of the first “nonfiction novel,” as Capote dubbed the new genre that he created, is the crispness of the writing. The book is only 350 pages and reads as smoothly as glass. It can be devoured in one sitting because the flow of the language, the book’s structure, and the sheer horror of the story do not let go., In Cold Blood is, quite simply, a masterpiece, to which Capote swore “and every word is true.”

The veracity of In Cold Blood, which took Capote seven years to write, has never been questioned publicly before now. However, when Ronald Nye, the son of KBI investigator, Harold Nye, decided to sell two letters from Capote to his father, and two first editions of Capote’s books, one of which was In Cold Blood signed by Capote and twelve other people involved in the Clutter case, Nye was directed by Christies, the famous auction house in New York, to contact author Gary McAvoy, a serious purveyor of valuable books, who would have the credentials to assist Nye in marketing his valuable collection.

Also included in the Nye materials to be sold were notebooks and copies of actual case reports recorded by Harold Nye. McAvoy’s curiosity was piqued as he read through Nye’s notebooks. He writes, “I was reminded of key passages in Capote’s masterwork---but they were hazy, since my first and last reading of it was the year it was published, in 1966.” (p.14) So, McAvoy reread In Cold Blood, gaining a different perspective on the classic as he poured over the information that Nye had recorded carefully in his notes. And, as McAvoy read the book, “I found that much had been omitted from In Cold Blood, and in many cases there were surprisingly crucial details that, at the time would have appeared in the eyes of many to be of little value. It was only when other documents came into my possession that we were able to connect the dots, alluding to something very different than was passed on to readers of In Cold Blood.” (p.17)

But then something even more unusual happened that linked Ronald Nye and Gary McAvoy as co-defendants in a four year legal battle. As McAvoy was preparing the Nye material for an online auction catalog, he and Nye were served with a cease and desist letter from the Kansas attorney general at the instigation of the KBI. The claim launched by the state agency was that “Harold Nye’s personal journals were state property and were possessed of ‘highly confidential information.’” (p.15) Nye and McAvoy considered that claim to be absurd as the material had never been in the KBI’s possession. How could they sue for notebooks that had belonged solely to Harold Nye?

The question then arose, why would the KBI be interested in the notebooks that had surfaced near fifty years after Smith and Hickock were executed? What was the KBI afraid of getting out into the public after all of those years? Had the KBI been involved in some kind of cover up that they did not want to come to light? This is the central question that McAvoy goes on to explore in And Every Word is True.

Most of the evidence that McAvoy includes in his book is taken directly from letters by the central players in the story; Hickock, Smith, Capote, Nye, and many others. Photographs of the originals are included above the text so that the readers can see the evidence in its original state. The effect of seeing the letters, notes, newspaper clippings, etc. gives And Every Word is True a chilling sense of authenticity.

Although Capote claimed to have had a photographic memory which recorded the details of his personal investigation, he did dub In Cold Blood the first “nonfiction novel.” If he were alive today, Capote would argue in his whispery lisp that by framing  his book as a “novel,” some poetic license could have been excused in the narrative. Understand, any author shapes his or her prose by the story s/he wants to tell, and that is obviously what Capote did.

McAvoy’s book is important because it takes to task a classic of American fiction and questions how much of the story is true. For example, did Hickock and Smith rob the Clutters of a measly fifty dollars and take their lives in a rage at the fact that there was no fortune to be had, or were they hired as hitmen to specifically target Herb Clutter? McAvoy’s research into Nye’s notes, as well as letters between Hickock and reporter Mack Nations of the Wichita Eagle, raise disturbing questions regarding whom Hickock and Smith met with in a diner shortly after the rampage at the Clutter home. Witnesses also claimed to have seen two men who resembled Smith and Hickock with a third man on Clutter land three weeks before the murders. If this information is true, what had the deadly duo being doing in Holcomb before the crime?

It truly is never too late to scratch the itch of clues that surface years after a crime. Despite the fact that I have read In Cold Blood at least a dozen times, McAvoy’s book compels me to read it yet again to compare the classic with And Every Word is True.

In the end, though, Capote’s book will continue to stay a bestseller because it is a great work of literature. The bones of the Clutter family remain in their graves, to be resurrected only when readers open In Cold Blood. Smith and Hickock swung for their crimes, known as petty, small time thieves who turned into cold blooded killers in their pathetic and brief lives. Nothing historical will have changed because of McAvoy’s book.

There are just questions. Lots and lots of dark questions that may or may not ever be answered. Read And Every Word is True and you will be pondering anew the tragic murder of Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter.