“No Saints in Kansas”
Author: Amy Brashear
Publisher: Soho Teen
Price: $18.99 (Hardcover)
For the last few years there have been any number of books which are, in some fashion or other, about other books.
There are retellings of Jane Austen novels and fictionalizations of the lives of humans connected with novels. See “The Paris Wife” about Hadley Hemingway, or “Z”, a novel based on Zelda’s life, or, more to the point, the novel “Capote in Kansas.”
These books have the advantage, obviously, of recognition: readers are familiar with the subject. They also have the challenge of overcoming that familiarity, since suspense is mostly lost. Unless they are beastly clever, like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, told from the point of view of Hamlet, as a fetus, they often lack the spark of genuine creativity.
This debut young-adult novel, “No Saints in Kansas,” is again the story of the murder of the Clutter family, mother, father and two teenage children, which had been of course the subject of “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote’s nonfiction masterpiece.
The protagonist and narrator is 17-year-old Carly Fleming, who had moved with her family to Kansas only three years earlier, from New York City.
In provincial Kansas, Carly is still an outsider having a tough time making friends. Her mother is so unhappy about the move she keeps herself moistened with martinis a good deal of the time.
The explanation for their move seemed to me skimpy. Carly’s father, Arnold Fleming, a criminal defense attorney, had, by proving “police misconduct,” procured a not-guilty verdict for a slimy character named Frank Baggett. We are told New Yorkers had turned against him and the family had been forced to move.
I think New York is too large and too calloused for that.
In any case, there in Kansas, bright, lonely Carly had become the math tutor for popular but not too bright Nancy Clutter, the murdered girl.
As did in fact happen at the time, Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby Rupp is the first suspect, and, despite a wave of local paranoia, Carly sets out to prove Bobby didn’t do it.
And she is very bold about it—sneaking into the Clutter house at night and even purloining some evidence from an unlocked room in the courthouse.
In the course of her investigations she runs into some other strangers out there, also asking questions.
At a news conference, Carly notices a “short man” with a “tiny mouth” and a “squeaky and nasal” voice. He has a “big head and glasses. His outfit is ridiculous. He’s wearing a pristine white suit in the middle of winter and a long coat… [and] a colorful scarf wrapped around his neck at least three times.”
His companion is a much taller woman “with a strong Southern accent.” When KBI agent Dewey asks the strange man what paper he is with, because he’s obviously not from around here, “the man answers I’m not with a paper... I’m from civilization. I write for the New Yorker….It’s a magazine? My name is Truman Capote.”
For a while, Lee and Capote move around Holcomb, interviewing locals. I wish they had larger parts in this story, because their scenes are always amusing. While interviewing Carly, Capote wears a cowboy hat and brings a tin of caviar to the coffee shop.
Of course, Bobby is blameless; Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are arrested in a matter of days and the plot takes a turn. Carly’s father is appointed, forced, to defend Perry Smith, and the family’s problems reappear. Mother is ostracized; the local mean girls are meaner than ever.
Her father explains: most people consider the accused to be monsters and sometimes see the defense attorney as a monster too. Watching an episode of “Perry Mason,” Carly says, “I realize how silly and unrealistic this program really is.”
Amy Brashear does tell the story from a fresh point of view, and the travails of the Fleming family are very welcome, especially since we all know how this turns out.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.