Shakespeare knew the value of a ghost to the development of tragedy. There are people who still believe in the power of the revenant, a visitor from the dead returning to deliver a message of significance to the living. The problem is that often such apparitions speak in rather foggy language, leaving their host or hostess to puzzle out the meaning.
In this rather odd but boldly constructed novel, the author postulates contact among and between A) one factual now-deceased author on his fictionalized deathbed, B) one factual still living author in her fictionalized and carefully guarded dotage, and C) one factual but deceased murder victim. All of these rare beings are famous: Truman Capote, Harper Lee (whose real name is Nelle Harper Lee) and Nancy Clutter. If you are a fan of Capote’s work, you will recognize the name: in real life she was an ordinary mother and farmwife cruelly and pointlessly killed by two passing strangers. Her tale was immortalized by Truman Capote, with some assistance from Harper Lee, a childhood friend. The immortalization was affected in Capote's 20th-century masterpiece,
In Cold Blood. Nancy is the ghost in the works in Capote in Kansas, a tangle of confessions and revelations.
In Cold Blood was a seminal work because once it was written, it seemed to represent a cusp in time between a kinder America, where people left their doors unlocked, trusted their neighbors, and only killed for passion or loot. Then something theretofore unthinkable occurred: two drifters, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, senselessly murdered the Clutter family on a Kansas farm one dark night. They were looking for money, but, not finding the fortune they expected, they simply stayed and slew four innocent people. Surely it was not the first time that such a gory deed was done for so little reason, but writing an exhaustive novelistic work of nonfiction about it made it seem like the first time, like the beginning of something wicked coming this way. Not to mention the fact that it was a brilliant book, with the chill of evil and its awful banality oozing out of every page.
Kim Powers is a journalist whose first book, The History of Swimming, reflected, among other emotive issues, his early struggles with his gender identity. Of Capote in Kansas he says, “I think Capote might get a hoot out of it. He bent the truth so much in his ‘non-fiction’ writing that I don’t think he would mind that I did it with him in this novel.” Powers identifies with Capote, but he also empathizes with Nancy, even to the point of feeling agony for the actress who played the role in the much-vaunted black and white film of the book. The actress had to speak Mrs. Clutter’s pitiful last words, “Please. Don’t.”
This book, with its snake boxes and grand ballrooms, will fascinate and please Capote and Lee fans who long for more closure on their sadly frustrating relationship - childhood buddies, he was the model for her character Dill in one of the finest examples of Southern American literature,
To Kill a Mockingbird, a book Capote is said to have said he wished he’d written. She, boyish and single, the willing amanuensis for the by-then well-established author (The Grass Harp,
Breakfast at Tiffany’s), apparently was willing to let him write her out of the recognition she deserved for her role in constructing his book. She went into virtual retreat from the world and never wrote again, and though he did, it was small potatoes compared to his early brilliance.
It all gets a bit confusing, as does the novel Powers has constructed. Even more confusing is the fact that there is another book by the same title, a fictionalized speculation about Capote and the Clutter murders, different author(s), different publisher. Perhaps if you are a serious student of all the actors involved, none of this will seem the least bit daunting, but as well as Powers writes and as fair a premise as he has chosen for his mystery/ghost story, this reviewer was unable to get past the oddity of it all.