Despite the evidence to the contrary on this blog, I have indeed been reading. Much more than usual, actually. Such are the luxuries of adult life.
Let’s talk about In Cold Blood. It’s an American classic and an example of exemplary crime novel writing. I am hard-pressed to think of ones written half as well, though I’m no expert on the genre.
First, the author.
Truman Capote. You’ve heard of him, but you may not be sure why you have. He’s a fiction writer, screenwriter, playwright, and actor. Heard of a little, famous film called Breakfast at Tiffanys? He wrote that, first as a novella. I would recommend it—the film definitely cut some major plot and character traits.
Such are film adaptations.
Saddled with a woeful childhood with a messy divorce on the part of his parents and a mother that left him for an extended period of time, Capote discovered his love for prose around the age of eight.
He wrote short stories that did quite well and attracted the attention of the literary elites, which led to his ability to write his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. It did quite well and helped solidify Capote as a significant figure in the literary period.
Capote enjoyed celebrity status of his own making—on the coattails of high society. Claiming to know famous folks he had never met, he was also to be found in numerous social circles of artists, actors, billionaires, and politicians. He was famously and openly homosexual, with a strange voice—high-pitched and bizarre.
Sadly, Capote was also addicted to drugs and alcohol. His own judgement and that of others attributed a lot of his substance abuse to researching and writing In Cold Blood. Surely facing the killers of an entire innocent family is enough to make many a virtuous man turn to drink.
“No one will ever know what ‘In Cold Blood’ took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me.” Truman Capote
Truman’s longtime partner and fellow writer Jack Dunphy lived separately from Capote, but said the arrangement was better since he wouldn’t have to watch Capote partake in his own downfall. Eventually in 1980, Capote suffered a hallucinatory seizure and became reclusive, coming in and out of lucidity. In short terms, he was a mess. Below you can see him drunk and under the influence on the Stanley Siegel show, among others. It’s quite sad.
Truman Capote passed away in 1984 on August 25th from liver disease and drug intoxication. He died in his friend Joanne Carson’s home in Bel Air.
What was done In Cold Blood?
A murder. It’s a true crime novel after all. The interesting thing about this true crime novel is that nothing is concealed from us. We know upon opening the book that the Clutter family has been murdered in a horrible way…each shot point blank in the face with a shotgun.
There’s little to no evidence, nor much of a motive. And thus the town begins to suspect one another.
In the same stroke, we meet our murderers. Slowly but surely, we get to know both the perpetrators of the crime and the family we know is headed for doom. Despite knowing their fate, our hearts call out to them and hope for their salvation. But we are of course met with the horrible truth of their deaths and then watch as their killers attempt to avoid justice.
It is in this slow building of our environment, our characters, and in the careful literary attention given to the prose where this book deserves its title as an American classic.
Even with a few chapters left, I found myself wondering why the murderers chose to act the way they did and if, in fact, this was something done in cold blood. Or was there more to understand? The minds of murderers are not so simple.
Not without controversy.
The book wasn’t received with complete acceptance, despite Capote insisting that it was completely factual. The very literary flourish that makes In Cold Blood such a pleasure to read is also its weakness—it has proven to stretch the truth in the slightest in pursuit of literary perfection.
The novel’s “hero” if you will, Alvin Dewey, was one of the chief investigators of the Clutter family murder and also a great help to Capote’s cause in researching the novel. There are some discrepancies in the novel as to Dewey’s swiftness in pursuing certain leads, as well as the existence of an ending scene in a graveyard.
There are also a few timeline errors as to the whereabouts of the murderers, suggesting at one point that a similar murder committed in Florida was not possibly perpetrated by the Clutter family killers due to an alibi and a passed polygraph test. However, Capote’s timeline isn’t quite correct and it’s highly possible that the killers were in Florida at the time of the similar murder, as well as the fact that their alibi wasn’t corroborated and their polygraph test was not accurate.
Capote was attempting something he coined a “nonfiction novel”, which I think can be compared to the genre “creative nonfiction”. But it’s a contradictory term, one that seems impossible.
The perils of true crime writing and creative nonfiction.
The idea of expanding journalistic writing into a more literary realm is not something we would find so radical today since it exists. In an interview with The New York Times, Capote lays out a few reasons as to why fiction writers found it “beneath them” to dive into creative nonfiction. Some of those reasons, including ones that reference a fear of legal retribution, ring true today.
“When I first formed my theories concerning the nonfiction novel, many people with whom I discussed the matter were unsympathetic. They felt that what I proposed, a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual, was little more than a literary solution for fatigued novelists suffering from “failure of imagination.” Personally, I felt that this attitude represented a “failure of imagination” on their part.” Truman Capote
He asserts that there is a sort of usage of imagination, of fiction technique that needs to be present in order to write such a novel. Later he goes on to explain that those who do not know the ins and outs of writing fiction, but know journalism could still not achieve non-fictional novels. But what is it that a nonfiction novel is trying to do? Tell the truth? Elaborate on the complexity of that truth?
With crime it is not so simple.
In studying or researching a violent crime, the victims are the prerogative. It’s important to respect their memories and what happened to them.
The only issue with that is the need for detail, explanation, and an understanding of what happened. Sometimes this does not paint the victim in the rosiest of colors and sometimes the use of a victim’s story can end up earning the writer considerable monetary gain—another serious consideration of true crime writing. One should write not to capitalize, but to comprehend and to study.
Even if such writing is executed carefully, the nature of violent crime is inherently terrifying. It’s the kind of thing humans want to push away in their minds, so as to walk the streets and sleep at night in a calm state. Someone will always become offended or think true crime writing in poor taste.
Blood runs cold.
Couple journalistic style with literary flair for creative nonfiction, or Capote’s product the “nonfiction novel”, and you’ve got a serious minefield.
You’re embellishing a true story? And a sensitive one at that? Adding gorgeous participle phrases onto what would traditionally be a declarative punch?
It’s a delicate dance of art and utility—prose and journalism. Does Capote get it right? It depends on your idea of right. Was it an entertaining story, revealing the bizarre cruelty of American killers? Or was it a botched example of why art should remain separate from tragedy?
Perhaps Capote didn’t get it perfect, but I would say he got damn near close.