Killing A Mockingbird In Cold Blood


When naming a great American novel, you might choose To Kill A Mockingbird, or maybe In Cold Blood. But who wrote them?

In the 1930s, in Monroeville, Alabama, a young girl named Nelle, became best friends with the boy next door. She was mouthy, a non-conformist, a tomboy, a playground scrapper. He was small and, as a result, often grateful for his friend’s protection. They shared a love of reading and after being given an old typewriter they began writing stories together. They were to grow up to become two of the America’s finest authors: Harper Lee and Truman Capote.

Capote moved to New York City, joining his mother. In 1948 his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published. Around that time, Lee headed to New York to pursue her writing career. After eight years of working menial jobs, she finally showed a manuscript to a publishing editor. Told that the novel was more like a string of short stories, Lee began rewriting and her frustration grew. Rumour has it that, one cold winter’s night in 1958, Lee chucked her entire manuscript out of her apartment window. That novel was To Kill A Mockingbird. Fortunately, she called the editor to inform him of her act and he insisted that she went straight outside to retrieve the work. She rescued the manuscript, literally, from the slush pile.

The story is told from the view of a six year old girl, Scout Finch, and clear similarities can be made with Lee’s own childhood in Alabama. In the book, a character called Dill spends his summers with Scout. He lives next door and brings with him a city boy’s perspective, whilst entertaining her with his tales. Dill is surely based on Capote, who, having left in the third grade, returned to Alabama every summer where he lived with his uncles and aunts. The hero of the novel is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, who, like Harper Lee’s father, is a lawyer. The plot deals with class, morality and gender roles, but, most of all, it deals with race and prejudice. It is possible that a case involving Lee’s father directly shaped the story: In 1919 he had defended two black men (a father and son) who had been accused of murdering a white shopkeeper. Both clients were hanged. In the book, Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a young white woman.

The plot certainly points to the pen of Lee but did Capote turn it into a masterpiece? It is on record that he read the manuscript and helped with the editing but how much of To Kill a Mocking Bird did he actually write?

In 1959, Capote is drawn to an article in the New York Times. It outlines the brutal shotgun killing of a farmer (Herb Clutter), his wife (Bonnie), and their two children (Nancy and Kenyon). The Clutters had been discovered bound and murdered at their home in Kansas, the mother and daughter found in their beds, the father and son slain in the basement. Capote decided to write about the murders and headed to Kansas, accompanied by his friend, Harper Lee.

Whilst they worked on a book about the murders, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was published, with a quote from Capote on the jacket. The novel achieves rave reviews and becomes a bestseller. A year later, the novel lands the Pulitzer Prize. It has been said that Capote resented the book’s success – he was reluctant to quash suggestions that he was actually the author – but their friendship survived as the methodical, pragmatic Lee worked tirelessly on Capote’s 1966 novel, In Cold Blood. Was Lee in debt to Capote for his contribution to her success?

She spent the best part of six years researching the Clutter murders and interviewing the locals. Her findings provided the bedrock for the novel, and her interviews with the killers allowed the book to show their views from death row.

Capote thanked Lee in his dedication but did she get enough credit? 

Since In Cold Blood came out, it has never gone out of print. It’s spawned several movies and defined its own genre. When we begin the book, the reader knows that the Clutter family have been brutally murdered. This real family; hardworking, solid members of society, engage us and we soon become emotionally involved with their lives and the town folk, fearing their inevitable path.  

Both books have strong narratives; they raise questions about capital punishment and victimisation, and deal with uncovering the truth but, like Lee and Capote, they were quite different.

In Cold Blood was difficult to classify. It has been hailed as the first true crime book, and described as gothic fiction, but, I like Capote’s view that it’s a ‘non-fiction novel’. The idea of applying a strong story narrative to a non-fiction book was inventive. It reads like a stylish, haunting crime novel, but is also true account of the murders, the perpetrators’ arrest and their trail.

We will probably never know who had the most input into these seminal works of literature but it does seem that the authors conspired. Readers like the idea that a book has an author, singular, but that’s not always the case. With Lee and Capote, we have two great talents at work, neither of whom produced any work of note after the publication of In Cold Blood.

The fact that Capote failed to receive the Pulitzer Prize he was expecting did nothing for his relationship with Lee. His jealously and drinking may have led to problems in their friendship. What is known is that they never worked together again. Writing alone they were not the same force.

In the aftermath of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee was uncomfortable with the public attention thrust upon her and went on to adopt a reclusive, private lifestyle. Capote, however, lived off the success of In Cold Blood, hobnobbing with the rich and famous whilst drug and alcohol abuse caused a slow public demise, resulting in his death in 1984.



Strangers On A Movie

When the master of suspense hired the legendary hard-boiled detective writer

It is 1950 and Alfred Hitchcock is suffering a mid-career crisis. His latest films, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright have flopped. In need of a hit he comes across a thriller from first time novelist Patricia Highsmith entitled Strangers on a Train.

In the book, tennis player Guy Haines meets a stranger on train and, after sharing their problems, the two men agree to an exchange of murders. This way their crimes would appear motiveless. It seems a perfect plan as each will benefit from a murder for which they will have an alibi. Guy doesn't take the agreement seriously until his wife winds up dead. He is warned that he must fulfil his part of the deal or else…
Hitchcock secures the movie rights to the novel, paying $7,500. Highsmith would later be annoyed when she discovers that Hitchcock had bought the rights at a low price as a result of keeping his name out the negotiations.

Nervous of another failure, Hitchcock and Warne Bros. want an acclaimed writer to pen the screenplay. Eight big names are approached, including John Steinbeck, but they all reject the opportunity. Hitchcock turns to the great American crime writers and, after a deal with Dashiell Hammett falls through, he contacts Raymond Chandler. On reading the treatment, Chandler describes it is a “silly little story" and “implausible” but he takes the job anyway.  

It seems like a perfect collaboration; a script from the respected master of hardboiled crime fiction and a cinematic genius in the director’s chair.

Chandler is a no-nonsense writer. He wants to crack on with the script and works best alone. Hitchcock demands an input, making suggestions and putting forward his ideas for a scene. It is a recipe for disaster. In no time their relationship is in ruins. Chandler tells Hitchcock, “If you can go it alone, why the hell do you need me?” He describes their meetings as, "god-awful jabber sessions which seem to be an inevitable although painful part of the picture business.” His main gripe is the director’s willingness to forgo story and logic for dramatic effect.

On seeing Hitchcock arrive for a meeting, Chandler shouts, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!"

Overhearing the remark, Hitchcock ceases talking to the writer. Chandler completes two drafts of the screenplay, without hearing a word from Hitchcock, before being dismissed.

Czenzi Ormonde is hired to write the screenplay. A fair-haired beauty with long shimmering hair, she resembles one of Hitchcock’s leading ladies and has no formal screenwriting credit to her name. Meeting her to discuss the script, Hitchcock makes a show of pinching his nose, then holding up Chandler's draft with his thumb and forefinger before dropping it into a wastebasket. Ormonde is informed that Chandler hasn't written a solitary line he intends to use. 

After reading the final script, Chandler writes the following letter to Hitchcock:

Dear Hitch,
In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing you mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clich├ęs, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a "far less brilliant mind than mine" to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I'm not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They'll know damn well I didn't. I shouldn't have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn't. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It's no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.
(Signed, 'Raymond Chandler')

On the verge of releasing the film, Hitchcock and Chandler agree that the novelist should be removed from the credits. However, still wanting the prestige of the Chandler name, Warner Bros. list him as one of the film’s writers.

Strangers on a Train is a success and marks Hitchcock’s comeback. It endures as one of the director’s most popular movies.

Patricia Highsmith's career blossoms. She produces other psychological mystery novels that become adapted for the screen including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley's Game and Edith's Diary.


The Reading Room

Nottinghamshire authors have recently been featured on Siren FM’s award winning The Reading Room.

Click to hear Podcast: ROOM 24 featuring a short story from thriller writer John Baird, whilst Nikki Valentine gives her nomination for their 101 Book To Read Before You Die.

Click to hear Podcast: ROOM 22 where Nikki Valentine provides the short story.

Click to hear Podcast: ROOM 21 where Booker prize nominated author Jon McGregor talks about his new collection of short stories This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.

Siren FM’s The Reading Room recently took second place in an international award, seeing off Radio 4's The Today Programme, Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time and iTunes Live in the process.

The Reading Room broadcasts just once a month and features a mix of book reviews, interviews with authors, original short stories and poetry.

Paul Tyler has been hosting The Reading Room for almost two years with the aim of making literature more accessible and, after winning European Podcast Award's UK professional category, the show looks to go from strength to strength.


The Reading Room

Don’t Miss The Reading Room This Sunday and Tuesday!

'On this month’s programme, The Reading Room Book Group review the latest novel from Secret Diary of Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend, The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year .We also talk to crime author Elly Griffiths about her popular Ruth Galloway series, Georgia Twynham, author of The Thirteenth, will be live in the studio talking about the third book in her teen fantasy series, Nyteria Rising , and we have a short story from John Baird.

We also have poetry from Adrienne Silcock, Jamie McKay’s Musings of A Muddled Mind, more nominations for our 101 Books To Read Before You Dieand the usual eclectic mix of Sunday morning music.'

That’s Sunday the 1st, 10am-12noon, repeated Tuesday 7pm-9pm on Siren 107.3FM in Lincoln and around the world here at sirenonline.