....Eight murders, and not a single clue that would link the victims together to produce some semblance of a motive. Nothing. Except those three little handcarved coffins.
"....a little bit of the Dark World came through and pressed him to death."
"The Phantom Rickshaw"
Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime by Truman Capote (1979)
"Handcarved Coffins" is bricolage fiction, shocking in its authority and concinnity.
I feel like "Handcarved Coffins" has been at my back, unread, since I bought a paperback of Music for Chameleons in 1984. "Handcarved Coffins" was the only piece in that fine collection I did not read. Like In Cold Blood, I disliked the very idea of what is today called "true crime." (Turns out, as a web search will show you in five seconds, "Handcarved Coffins" is not a non-fiction novella at all. It is fiction.)
Happily this week I was able, thanks to encouragement from a couple of fellow readers, to rectify my 35 years of neglect.
"Handcarved Coffins" gives us narrator Capote's encounters and discussions with several people in the U.S. West (unnamed, but perhaps Kansas or Nebraska). One is a state police investigator; others are responsible members of the local small-town/rural bourgeoisie. All are trying to figure out a series of macabre local killings.
As a distancing device, Capote gives us dialogue in transcript form. Here he is talking with investigator Jake Pepper on a cold winter night in a motel room on the plains:
Jake sat crosslegged on the floor, a glass of bourbon beside him. He had a chessboard spread before him; absently he shifted the chessmen about.
TC: The amazing thing is, nobody seems to know anything about this case. It's had almost no publicity.
JAKE: There are reasons.
TC: I've never been able to put it into proper sequence. It's like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
JAKE: Where shall we begin?
TC: From the beginning.
JAKE: Go over to the bureau. Look in the bottom drawer. See that little cardboard box? Take a look at what's inside it.
(What I found inside the box was a miniature coffin. It was a beautifully made object, carved from light balsam wood. It was undecorated; but when one opened the hinged lid one discovered the coffin was not empty. It contained a photograph—a casual, candid snapshot of two middle-aged people, a man and a woman, crossing a street. It was not a posed picture; one sensed that the subjects were unaware that they were being photographed.)
That little coffin. I guess that's what you might call the beginning.
TC: And the picture?
JAKE: George Roberts and his wife. George and Amelia Roberts.
TC: Mr. and Mrs. Roberts. Of course. The first victims. He was a lawyer?
JAKE: He was a lawyer, and one morning (to be exact: the tenth of August 1970) he got a present in the mail. That little coffin. With the picture inside it. Roberts was a happy-go-lucky guy; he showed it to some people around the courthouse and acted like it was a joke. One month later George and Amelia were two very dead people.
TC: How soon did you come on the case?
JAKE: Immediately. An hour after they found them I was on my way here with two other agents from the Bureau. When we got here the bodies were still in the car. And so were the snakes. That's something I'll never forget. Never.
TC: Go back. Describe it exactly.
JAKE: The Robertses had no children. Nor enemies, either. Everybody liked them. Amelia worked for her husband; she was his secretary. They had only one car, and they always drove to work together. The morning it happened was hot. A sizzler. So I guess they must have been surprised when they went out to get in their car and found all the windows rolled up. Anyway, they each entered the car through separate doors, and as soon as they were inside—wam! A tangle of rattlesnakes hit them like lightning. We found nine big rattlers inside that car. All of them had been injected with amphetamine; they were crazy, they bit the Robertses everywhere: neck, arms, ears, cheeks, hands. Poor people. Their heads were huge and swollen like Halloween pumpkins painted green. They must have died almost instantly. I hope so. That's one hope I really hope.
TC: Rattlesnakes aren't that prevalent in these regions. Not rattlesnakes of that caliber. They must have been brought here.
JAKE: They were. From a snake farm in Nogales, Texas. But now's not the time to tell you how I know that.
(Outside, crusts of snow laced the ground, spring was a long way off—a hard wind whipping the window announced that winter was still with us. But the sound of the wind was only a murmur in my head underneath the racket of rattling rattlesnakes, hissing tongues. I saw the car dark under a hot sun, the swirling serpents, the human heads growing green, expanding with poison. I listened to the wind, letting it wipe the scene away.)
"Handcarved Coffins" gives us an x-ray of ranching, water rights, and grotesque killing under a finely drawn big-sky landscape. Capote could have shaped it along lines of Zola, Dreiser, or Tom Wolfe. Instead, he gives it to us in semaphore: short, sharp shocks that keep us flipping pages all night.
After the first couple is murdered with rattlesnakes, a second couple is trapped and burned alive in the basement of their house. A third local, Clem Anderson, meets his end in ghastly fashion, after receiving one of the little coffins.
[JAKE] .... I'd been seeing a lot of Clem right along. Ever since I came out here on the case. He had a wild streak, he drank too much; but he was shrewd, he taught me a lot about this town.
One night he called me here at the motel. He sounded funny. He said he had to see me right away. So I said come on over. I thought he was drunk, but it wasn't that—he was scared. Know why?
TC: Santa Claus had sent him a present.
JAKE: Uh-huh. But you see, he didn't know what it was. What it meant. The coffin, and its possible connection to the rattlesnake murders, had never been made public. We were keeping that a secret. I had never mentioned the matter to Clem.
So when he arrived in this very room, and showed me a coffin that was an exact replica of the one the Robertses had received, I knew my friend was in great danger. It had been mailed to him in a box wrapped in brown paper; his name and address were printed in an anonymous style. Black ink.
TC: And was there a picture of him?
JAKE: Yes. And I'll describe it carefully because it is very relevant to the manner of Clem's death. Actually, I think the murderer meant it as a little joke, a sly hint as to how Clem was going to die.
In the picture, Clem is seated in a kind of jeep. An eccentric vehicle of his own invention. It had no top and it had no windshield, nothing to protect the driver at all. It was just an engine with four wheels. He said he'd never seen the picture before, and had no idea who had taken it or when.
Now I had a difficult decision. Should I confide in him, admit that the Roberts family had received a similar coffin before their deaths, and that the Baxters probably had as well? In some ways it might be better not to inform him: that way, if we kept close surveillance, he might lead us to the killer, and do it more easily by not being aware of his danger.
TC: But you decided to tell him.
JAKE: I did. Because, with this second coffin in hand, I was certain the murders were connected. And I felt that Clem must know the answer. He must.
But after I explained the significance of the coffin, he went into shock. I had to slap his face. And then he was like a child; he lay down on the bed and began to cry: "Somebody's going to kill me. Why? Why?" I told him: "Nobody's going to kill you. I can promise you that. But think, Clem! What do you have in common with these people who did die? There must be something. Maybe something very trivial." But all he could say was: "I don't know. I don't know." I forced him to drink until he was drunk enough to fall asleep. He spent the night here. In the morning he was calmer. But he still could not think of anything that connected him with the crimes, see how he in any way fitted into a pattern. I told him not to discuss the coffin with anyone, not even his wife; and I told him not to worry—I was importing an extra two agents just to keep an eye on him.
TC: And how long was it before the coffin-maker kept his promise?
JAKE: Oh, I think he must have been enjoying it. He teased it along like a fisherman with a trout trapped in a bowl. The Bureau recalled the extra agents, and finally even Clem seemed to shrug it off. Six months went by. Amy called and invited me out to dinner. A warm summer night. The air was full of fireflies. Some of the children chased about catching them and putting them into jars.
As I was leaving, Clem walked me out to my car. A narrow river ran along the path where it was parked, and Clem said: "About that connection business. The other day I suddenly thought of something. The river." I said what river; and he said that river, the one flowing past us. "It's kind of a complicated story. And probably silly. But I'll tell you the next time I see you."
Eventually , Jake Pepper discovers the common denominator among the murder victims. All served on a local river-diversion committee.
Jake has also created a bigger problem for himself: he has fallen in love with another member of the river-diversion committee, first-grade teacher Adelaide Mason.
ADDIE: ….I only used the story to lure you into my lair.
JAKE: That's not true.
ADDIE (sadly, her voice in dull counterpoint to the canaries' chirping serenades): No, it isn't true. Because by the time I decided to speak to Jake, I had concluded that someone did indeed intend to kill me; and I had a fair notion who it was, even though the motive was so improbable. Trivial.
JAKE: It's neither improbable nor trivial. Not after you've studied the style of the beast.
ADDIE (ignoring him; and impersonally, as if she were reciting the multiplication table to her students): Everybody knows everybody else. That's what they say about small-town people. But it isn't true. I've never met the parents of some of my pupils. I pass people every day who are virtual strangers. I'm a Baptist, our congregation isn't all that large; but we have some members—well, I couldn't tell you their names if you held a revolver to my head.
The point is: when I began to think about the people who had died, I realized I had known them all. Except the couple from Tulsa who were staying with Ed Baxter and his wife—
JAKE: The Hogans.
ADDIE: Yes. Well, they're not part of this anyway. Bystanders—who got caught in an inferno. Literally.
Not that any of the victims were close friends—except, perhaps, Clem and Amy Anderson. I'd taught all their children in school.
But I knew the others: George and Amelia Roberts, the Baxters, Dr. Parsons. I knew them rather well. And for only one reason. (She gazed into her wine, observed its ruby flickerings, like a gypsy consulting clouded crystal, ghostly glass) The river. (She raised the wineglass to her lips, and again drained it in one long luxuriously effortless gulp) Have you seen the river? Not yet? Well, now is not the time of year. But in the summer it is very nice. By far the prettiest thing around here. We call it Blue River; it is blue—not Caribbean blue, but very clear all the same and with a sandy bottom and deep quiet pools for swimming. It originates in those mountains to the north and flows through the plains and ranches; it's our main source of irrigation, and it has two tributaries—much smaller rivers, one called Big Brother and the other Little Brother.
The trouble started because of these tributaries. Many ranchers, who were dependent on them, felt that a diversion should be created in Blue River to enlarge Big Brother and Little Brother. Naturally, the ranchers whose property was nourished by the main river were against this proposition. None more so than Bob Quinn, owner of the B.Q. Ranch, through which the widest and deepest stretches of Blue River travels.
JAKE (spitting into the fire): Robert Hawley Quinn, Esquire.
ADDIE: It was a quarrel that had been simmering for decades. Everyone knew that strengthening the two tributaries, even at the expense of Blue River (in terms of power and sheer beauty), was the fair and logical thing to do. But the Quinn family, and others among the rich Blue River ranchers, had always, through various tricks, prevented any action from being taken.
Then we had two years of drought, and that brought the situation to a head. The ranchers whose survival depended upon Big Brother and Little Brother were raising holy hell. The drought had hit them hard; they'd lost a lot of cattle, and now they were out full-force demanding their share of Blue River.
Finally the town council voted to appoint a special committee to settle the matter. I have no idea how the members of the committee were chosen. Certainly I had no particular qualification; I remember old Judge Hatfield—he's retired now, living in Arizona—phoned me and asked if I would serve; that's all there was to it. We had our first meeting in the Council Room at the courthouse, January 1970. The other members of the committee were Clem Anderson, George and Amelia Roberts, Dr. Parsons, the Baxters, Tom Henry, and Oliver Jaeger—
JAKE (to me): Jaeger. He's the postmaster. A crazy sonofabitch.
ADDIE: He's not really crazy. You only say that because—
JAKE: Because he's really crazy.
(Addie was disconcerted. She contemplated her wineglass, moved to refill it, found the bottle empty, and then produced from a small purse, conveniently nestling in her lap, a pretty little silver box filled with blue pills: Valiums; she swallowed one with a sip of water. And Jake had said that Addie was not a nervous woman?)
TC: Who's Tom Henry?
JAKE: Another nut. Nuttier than Oliver Jaeger. He owns a filling station.
ADDIE: Yes, there were nine of us. We met once a week for about two months. Both sides, those for and those against, sent in experts to testify. Many of the ranchers appeared themselves—to talk to us, to present their own case.
But not Mr. Quinn. Not Bob Quinn—we never heard a word from him, even though, as the owner of the B.Q. Ranch, he stood to lose the most if we voted to divert "his" river. I figured: He's too high and mighty to bother with us and our silly little committee; Bob Quinn, he's been busy talking to the governor, the congressmen, the senators; he thinks he's got all those boys in his hip pocket. So whatever we might decide didn't matter. His big-shot buddies would veto it.
But that's not how it turned out. We voted to divert Blue River at exactly the point where it entered Quinn's property; of course, that didn't leave him without a river—he just wouldn't have the hog's share he'd always had before.
Jake is convinced he can find enough evidence to charge Bob Quinn before Addie can be killed. But the evidence, and the appetite of his superiors to take on a powerful local landowner, never quite comes together. Capote leaves to pursue other commitments (including rereading Proust in the Alps, as one does), and returns to tragedy's aftermath.
He speaks to Adelaide Mason's sister over the phone.
MARYLEE (a catch in her voice): You didn't know about Addie?
TC: Not until today …
MARYLEE (suspiciously): What did Jake say?
TC: He said she drowned.
MARYLEE (defensively, as though we were arguing): Well, she did. And I don't care what Jake thinks. Bob Quinn was nowhere in sight. He couldn't have had anything to do with it.
(I heard her take a deep breath, followed by a long pause—as if, attempting to control her temper, she was counting to ten.)
If anybody's to blame, it's me. It was my idea to drive out to Sandy Cove for a swim. Sandy Cove doesn't even belong to Quinn. It's on the Miller ranch. Addie and I always used to go there; it's shady and you can hide from the sun. It's the safest part of Blue River; it has a natural pool, and it's where we learned to swim when we were little girls. That day we had Sandy Cove all to ourselves; we went into the water together, and Addie remarked how this time next week she'd be swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Addie was a strong swimmer, but I tire easily. So after I'd cooled off, I spread a towel under a tree and started reading through some of the magazines we'd brought along. Addie stayed in the water; I heard her say: "I'm going to swim around the bend and sit on the waterfall." The river flows out of Sandy Cove and sweeps around a bend; beyond the bend a rocky ridge runs across the river, creating a small waterfall—a short drop, not more than two feet. When we were children it was fun to sit on the ridge and feel the water rushing between our legs.
I was reading, not noticing the time until I felt a shiver and saw the sun was slanting toward the mountains; I wasn't worried—I imagined Addie was still enjoying the waterfall. But after a while I walked down to the river and shouted Addie! Addie! I thought: Maybe she's trying to tease me. So I climbed the embankment to the top of Sandy Cove; from there I could see the waterfall and the whole river moving north. There was no one there; no Addie. Then, just below the fall, I saw a white lily pad floating on the water, bobbing. But then I realized it wasn't a lily; it was a hand—with a diamond twinkling: Addie's engagement ring, the little diamond Jake gave her. I slid down the embankment and waded into the river and crawled along the waterfall ridge. The water was very clear and not too deep; I could see Addie's face under the surface and her hair tangled in the twigs of a tree branch, a sunken tree. It was hopeless—I grabbed her hand and pulled and pulled with all my strength but I couldn't budge her. Somehow, we'll never know how, she'd fallen off the ridge and the tree had caught her hair, held her down. Accidental death by drowning. That was the coroner's verdict. Hello?
TC: Yes, I'm here.
MARYLEE: My grandmother Mason never used the word "death." When someone died, especially someone she cared about, she always said that they had been "called back." She meant that they had not been buried, lost forever; but, rather, that the person had been "called back" to a happy childhood place, a world of living things. And that's how I feel about my sister. Addie was called back to live among the things she loves. Children. Children and flowers. Birds. The wild plants she found in the mountains.
TC: I'm so very sorry, Mrs. Connor. I …
MARYLEE: That's all right, dear.
TC: I wish there was something …
MARYLEE: Well, it was good to hear from you. And when you speak to Jake, remember to give him my love.
I SHOWERED, SET A BOTTLE of brandy beside my bed, climbed under the covers, took the telephone off the night table, nestled it on my stomach, and dialed the Oregon number that I had been given. Jake's son answered; he said his father was out, he wasn't sure where and didn't know when to expect him. I left a message for Jake to call as soon as he came home, no matter the hour. I filled my mouth with all the brandy it could hold, and rinsed it around like a mouthwash, a medicine to stop my teeth from chattering.
"Handcarved Coffins" is filled with powerful uncanny moments. Capote, in a dream, sees how Bob Quinn might have killed Addie. He also realizes he might have encountered Quinn before, at a river baptism church ceremony in his childhood.
"Handcarved Coffins" is a modest, circumspect work of brilliance. Its killer is "a pure product of America," as a poet once wrote.
8 May 2020