Breakfast Epiphanies

"Handcarved Coffins," a story from Music for Chameleons By Truman Capote Random House, $10.95

HANDCARVED COFFINS" is a true story about a murderer, a detective and a writer. Truman Capote calls it "A Non-Fiction Account of an American Crime," putting it in a class with In Cold Blood. Again, Capote explores the American penchant for evil. But so simple is his tone and so macabre his tale that this short work seems colder and bloodier than his earlier account of multiple murders in the New West. With In Cold Blood, Capote invented a genre; 15 years later, he has whittled a tiny literary headstone for the remains of American innocence.

Capote has a stomach for blood. One whiff of murderous intrigue and he heads for the scene of the crime. He meets up with a state investigator named Jake Pepper in town somewhere in "a small, western state" where the murderer has already claimed seven victims.

The murderer is Bob Quinn, a white-maned rancher who thinks himself God. Quinn taunts his victims by mailing them each their own photograph enclosed in a small, handcarved coffin. Then he kills them. One couple finds nine angry rattlesnakes under the frontseat of their car. A fire incinerates four others, their lone escape route sealed by cinder blocks. When a rancher named Clem Anderson gets his coffin in the mail, its meaning is clear. But after a few sleepless weeks, Clem forgets to worry. Authorities find his body lying in a ditch near his overturned jeep. A razorsharp wire strung between a tree and a telephone pole has severed his head as Clem drove down his ranch road at dusk.

The detective is Jake Pepper, a state investigator who reads Dickens and quotes Twain: "Of all the creatures that were made, man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood, he is the only one, the solitary one, that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices--the most hateful. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. Also in all the list, he is the only creature that has a nasty mind."

Capote makes this quotation his centerpiece and turns Jake Pepper into a tragic hero of sorts, a Sam Spade in dungarees and pointy boots. Clues refuse to fall into place for him. Pepper's eminent reason cannot fathom the dementia of Quinn's "nasty mind."

The writer is Capote himself, of course, a weird little man who has taken his floppy hats, bald chin and rat's voice and escaped his chic playpen. He has returned to America's dusty trails, where his eyes are accustomed to the darkness and his complexion can bear the heat.

THERE IS quickness of pen and extraordinary imagination in Handcarved Coffins as Capote recounts the bizarre details of the Quinn-Pepper battle. One fist-faced women watches TV with the sound off, another goes to work for the circus in Sarasota, a third injures her knee in a fall from her father's horse. Capote's intuition slices through the lies, doubts and fears of these people but he refuses to condescend. He is perplexed by the townspeople who noisily support Quinn against all suspicion. And he is wounded by the quiet pain of Pepper's lover Addie, who nobly accepts her fate when a handcarved coffin arrives in the mail.

Unlike In Cold Blood, Capote never fully understands his criminal, Bob Quinn. Quinn never goes to jail, to court or to the gallows. He still raises cattle on his ten thousand acres. Pepper still hunts, but Capote hints that Quinn will never be caught. His message, told in prose that floats across the American plains, from New York to Venice to Istanbul and back to the Prairie Motel in the "small western state," is clear: we will always be "detestable."