In Cold Blood
A non-fiction novel. What is that, exactly? Many believe that the pioneer of this genre was Truman Capote. His best selling book, In Cold Blood, is a chilling depiction of a senseless murder. In a 1966 New York Times interview with George Plimpton, Capote explains his decision to write a book about the brutal 1959 murder of a Kansas family:
The motivating factor in my choice of material—that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case—was altogether literary. The decision was based on a theory I’ve harbored since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.
The result was In Cold Blood. Published in 1966, it became an instant success and is considered Capote’s masterpiece.
On November 14, 1959, Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, were brutally murdered in their Holcomb, Kansas home. Their killers, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, were two ex-cons looking for fast cash. They’d heard that the Clutters had a safe full of money and drove over 400 miles across the state to rob the family. When they discovered there was no safe, and very little cash, the two men killed the Clutters in a rage.
I was curious about this book, but I had avoided it for many years. I don’t like reading violent crime stories, but as a Capote fan, I knew I had to read it. While the story is about the crime and the investigation, it is equal parts a picture of a small middle-American farming town and a psychological study of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. While I had no sympathy for these men, I was fascinated with their back stories. Hickcock’s insistence on robbing the Clutters, along with Smith’s unpredictable reactions to people and situations led to killings that may not have happened on a different day.
Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with Hickock and Smith, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.
In Cold Blood was first published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker in 1965. It was published in book form the following year. How Capote organized this vast amount of information and assembled the story is extraordinary.
Capote made a lot of friends in Kansas, but he also made some enemies. He was particularly close to the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, but Duane West, a prosecuting attorney, hated Capote. West called the book “garbage” (but he didn’t read it) and claimed that it wasn’t factual. He said that Capote made Dewey into a hero, when the real hero was a man named Rohleder, who captured important evidence in his photographs. Some townspeople felt they were not accurately portrayed and others have criticized the account as being inaccurate. My sense is that there were a lot of big egos in town and readers need to decide for themselves.
What is definitely true is that Capote’s writing is excellent, as I expected. And as a side note, this book isn’t nearly as violent as current true crimes and thrillers. Have you read In Cold Blood? What did you think?
For more Truman Capote, visit these links:
Thanks for visiting – come back soon!