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Author discusses social impact of 'In Cold Blood'

4/27/2012

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

Like many at the time, Ralph Voss was shocked when he heard about the Clutter family murder in southwest Kansas.

"Nov. 14, 1959. I was a 16-year-old student at Plainville High School out on a date with my girlfriend Alice, also 16," he said.

News of the murders created an atmosphere of fear.

"Until then, my parents never locked our doors at night," Voss said. "The following Saturday night, we only drove on brightly lit Main Street."

Little did he know how much impact the murder of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb that night would have on his own life and career.

Voss, who spent much of his career teaching at the University of Alabama before retiring three years ago, has written "Truman Capote and the Legacy of 'In Cold Blood.' "

He spoke of the crime, Capote's book and his own research Wednesday evening at Hays Public Library and Thursday at Fort Hays State University.

The discussion focused on the influence Capote's book has had on American culture.

Voss was teaching at La Crosse High School when the book came out in 1966.

"I bought it right away and read it," he said. "I never dreamed then I would be reading it over and over like I have."

He wrote a seminar paper on "In Cold Blood."

When Voss went on to teach at the university level, the book was on his students' reading list, including a course he developed on the fine line between fiction and nonfiction at the University of Alabama.

"You could say in one way that I have been kind of writing this book for years," he said.

However, it was seeing the movie "Capote" in 2006 that spurred Voss to write his book.

He thought it remarkable people still are interested in Capote and the Clutter murders.

"Somebody should write a book," he said. "I could write a book."

His first chapter deals with Capote's celebrity.

"He never missed a chance to go on a talk show," Voss said.

Voss' book also looks at Capote's gothic style, the concept of a nonfiction novel, the gay subtext, as well as the argument against capital punishment.

On the one hand, Capote wanted the murderers to die because it made his book better, yet he spent the rest of his life arguing against capital punishment, Voss said.

The final chapters deal with how Capote and "In Cold Blood" generated works of art by others, and the legacy left in Kansas.

Nancy Piatt, now of Victoria, lived and taught in Holcomb from 1972 to 1983 and knew the women who discovered the Clutters' bodies.

She attended Voss' lecture but never has seen the movie version of Capote's book.

"Most people just don't want to talk about it," she said of the murders and the book. "Natives resented the notoriety."