When I visited the library last Friday to pick up a novel, I had in mind genre fiction such as sci-fi or mystery. Or the closely aligned forensic detective fiction. I’d just finished reading Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, which was bleak, spare, and powerful and Asimov and Silverberg’s collaboration Nightfall, a novelized version of Isaac Asimov’s classic short story that I found interesting but that contained some rather bad writing and a weak plot.
I noticed a prominent display called Raves & Faves that contained multiple copies of some readers’ favourites. Intrigued, I browsed the shelf and was surprised at the mix of material, newer and older. Among the offerings was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. As I looked at it, I decided I was finally ready to read it. I’ve been reading and watching darker things lately, like the often gory novels involving forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, by Kathy Reichs, Season Six of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Season One of Dexter. Not to mention a couple of decades of murder and crime fiction.
But of course In Cold Blood is not fiction, though it employs fictional techniques. It details the 1959 slaying of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer from Holcomb, Kansas; his wife, and two children. The killers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested not long after the murders, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. It is considered the originator of the non-fiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement.1
I’ve felt antipathy for this work since it was first released in 1965. At the time I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, young, callow, naive. I was appalled by the subject matter and thought it disgusting that it should become a best seller. Worse, Capote became a frequent guest on late-night talk shows and I disliked him instantly. Flamboyantly homosexual and acerbic, he seemed full of venom and despite. Worse, he seemed so full of himself — not simply egoistic, but egomaniacal. I resolved that although I held what seemed a minority opinion about the work, I would never read In Cold Blood.
Of course that was foolish. To judge a person’s literary work by the person’s personality and a shallow understanding of the subject matter is downright irrational, not to mention immature. Mea culpa. Thank goodness we grow up.
As soon as I started reading In Cold Blood I was scarcely able to put it down. It is really well written, although a bit dated in style. Capote brings the stark Kansas landscape to life, and gets you into the head of the townspeople, the victims, and the two parole violators who committed the murders. Employing the techniques of fiction, Capote gives the work a story arc, a fleshing out of character, and a dark ambiguity that withholds judgement, although it is obvious from the writing that Capote abhorred capital punishment. Both of the accused were eventually hanged.
When I finished the work, I looked up some criticism to see what had been said about it. Undoubtedly Capote, along with Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, changed journalism with their creative nonfiction styles. It’s been pointed out that they’re not the first to employ novelistic techniques in nonfiction, but they certainly moulded it and popularized it.
One part of the story I didn’t know is that when Capote went to Kansas to research the story, he brought along Harper Lee, soon to become famous for To Kill a Mockingbird, as a kind of research assistant. They had been friends since childhood. It was Harper Lee, evidently, who broke down barriers to communication with the locals who were highly suspicious of Capote himself.
Something that nagged me throughout the reading, though, was that I had no way of knowing if Capote was always accurate in the things he wrote. Evidently he never took notes while interviewing people, bragging on TV that he had a superb memory that allowed him to remember 95% of what people told him. There are no footnotes in the work, or end notes. Some of the locals depicted in the work have gone on record to say that they’d been misquoted, misrepresented, or that certain scenes, like the book’s finale in the graveyard, never actually took place.
Nonetheless, the book rings true. There may be discrepancies and a little fictionalizing, but I could imagine the final scene taking place, even if it didn’t. It was in character. I think creative journalism has tightened up since Capote’s time with more attention to accuracy and more focus on citations but for the first of its kind, the work is remarkable.
I’m glad I read In Cold Blood, and I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to do so. I not only enjoyed the writing, I learned from it. Whatever else Capote was, he was a superb writer.
1 Wikipedia. “In Cold Blood“