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Had he strung them along by pretending to write an account sympathetic enough to provide grist for their final appeals against the death penalty, when in fact his intentions were quite different, and largely self-serving?
These are questions at the heart of the new movie Capote, released later this month, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman does a bravura turn as the quirky, complicated, flamboyantly homosexual writer who penned his masterpiece, his "non-fiction novel", and then never finished another book.
None of this material could make its way into a finished book until their fate had been settled, as the exasperated Capote acknowledged.
But his project soon grew into something else altogether: an opportunity to conduct an exhaustive anatomy of a crime and get inside the minds of its protagonists.
They were betrayed by a former employee of Clutter's who had previously shared a prison cell with Hickock and told him he was sure Mr Clutter kept ,000 in cash in a safe to make payroll on his farm each month.
When Hickock, at that stage no more than a petty conman and thief, got out of prison, he hired his friend Smith, and together they made the 270-mile journey from Kansas City to the small town of Holcomb.
Ned Rorem, the composer, and Kenneth Tynan, the British literary critic, were both shocked to hear Capote expressing delight when the final execution date was set in the spring of 1965.
Both subsequently argued that he could have done more to supply Smith and Hickock with a crack team of defence lawyers.He writes of the "little old big-hearted Perry" who pesters Dick to pick up a pair of hitchhikers, and who, when it turns out one of them is ill and Dick wants to leave him on the roadside, says: "Go ahead. But I'll be getting out too." The Perry who befriends a squirrel through the window of his prison cell, names him Big Red and draws him.The Perry, who, "throughout his life, poor and meanly treated, as a foot-loose youth, as an imprisoned man" dreams of a yellow bird, an "avenging angel", who lifts him up and away so he is "free...In Cold Blood is staggering in its accumulation of intimate detail.