This is a classic. It’s true crime. It was considered the first “nonfiction novel” in that it’s non-fiction but it reads like a novel.
It is the story of the Clutter family murders. If you don’t know this story, you can learn as much as you want–the crime scene photos are online (they’re slightly disturbing but not horrifyingly gory like the Black Dahlia photos, or the Jack the Ripper photos) the book is elegant and thorough, there’s a movie and a miniseries. It’s probably one of the most thoroughly covered cases around, at least of those that do not involve a serial killer.
Basically, one night in December, the Clutter family in Kansas was murdered. They were discovered the next morning by a girl who normally carpooled into town for church with them. (Let’s take a moment and feel for her, because in 1959 therapy wasn’t so much a thing and she probably could have used a LOT of therapy.)
There were four members of the family in the house: the father, a respected and prosperous farmer, his wife, a great invalid, and his two youngest children. The older was a girl well known for her great range of skills and her willingness to share those skills with those around her, and her brother, fifteen.
They were found all tied up. The mother and the daughter were in their own rooms, the father and the son were in the basement. The basement was divided into two areas: a playroom, which was where the boy was found, on the sofa, and a furnace room, which was where the father was found. They had all been shot in the head, and the father additionally had his throat cut.
Robbery was discarded as a motive almost immediately, despite the fact that the women’s purses were open and the contents scattered about, because the father had a firm policy not to carry any cash, a policy which was well known throughout the area.
The book cuts over to follow the killers, two young men. One is handsome and charming, the other is short and has a limp, the result of an unfortunate motorcycle accident that did severe damage to his legs.
One of them had spent time in a cell with a man who had worked as a temporary farmhand for the Clutter family. This man believed there to be a safe hidden in the home office, containing thousands of dollars. On the strength of this belief, he had drawn a map of the home and grounds and this map and this information prompted the two ex-cons to go to the home late at night and burgle it.
The goal was to rob the home, but they came prepared to commit murder if they were caught, with a shotgun, a knife and a large quantity of rope.
When they could not find the safe, they woke Mr. Clutter. He told them that there was no safe, but they did not believe him. They took him up to his wife’s room, and they tied them both up and then the children, and then they searched the home.
It soon became clear that there was no safe.
They took what cash there was, less than 50 dollars, and some small valuables. Then they killed the family. They slit Mr. Clutter’s throat, and he, while definitely bleeding to death, struggled so hard to get to them that he almost slipped his bonds. At that point, they shot him in the head.
From there, they shot the boy. Then they went upstairs and shot the daughter, and finally the wife.
They left the house. They went home, established an “alibi” and then wrote a bunch of bad checks to get items that they pawned, using that money to go to Mexico. They ran through that money, so they went back to the states, repeating the process and going to Florida. When they ran out of money there, they hitchhiked their way to Las Vegas, with their basic strategy being to kill the driver when they were able to do so. They were finally busted in Vegas–the cellmate who told them about the Clutter family having busted them–and were set for trial.
They were found guilty and condemned to death, although they lodged significant appeals that delayed that verdict being carried out for several years. Eventually, however, their time ran out and they were indeed hanged.
It was a stupid, pointless, miserable crime. It was completely unnecessary. It was, indeed, a tragedy.