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Recommended Reading - In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

Posted on: Friday, 24 August 2012

When I was showing you around my snazzy new apartment, I promised you a book more addictive than crack cocaine.

And here it is - In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. 

In theory, this is not a book that I should like. It is well-documented that I am not a person who is All About The Facts. I don't like logic puzzles. Sudoko is not my thing. I thought, therefore, it would follow that 'true crime' writing, or 'murder mystery' type stuff, wouldn't appeal to me. 

Turns out I was wrong. 

The premise of the book is a bit like those tasks that you'd find in an ancient English textbook. 'Find a story in the newspaper that interests you. Rewrite it in the style of a short story, with yourself as one of the characters'. 

Which is pretty much what Capote did. Except he only wrote himself into the book very subtly. 

Forgive my ignorance, but I didn't know too much about Truman Capote before I read this. I had 'A Capote Reader', and I'd dipped in and out of it. I knew he was a bit of a New York socialite who mated around with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I remember a beautiful description from a short piece he wrote about them - he said that the sight of Burton illuminated Taylor's eyes like a chain of Japanese lanterns. I thought that was lovely. 

I also knew he was pretty much abandoned as a child, and grew up with his aunts in Alabama where he met (Nelle) Harper Lee and was written into To Kill a Mockingbird as Dill. 

Well, let me tell you some more. With In Cold Blood, Capote wrote the original non-fiction novel. The process started when he read in the New York Times about a brutal killing of a wealthy wheat farmer and his family in Holcombe, Kansas. Apparently, he'd been looking for some inspiration for a non-fiction piece for some time, and it was a toss-up between the Holcombe murder and shadowing a maid working in a fancy New York hotel. He chose the murder and the rest, as they say, is the birth of an entirely new genre of writing.

You see, my initial assumption - that it was a 'murder mystery' of sorts - was actually wrong. Tom Wolfe summed it up ideally - this book isn't a 'who-dunnit' or a question of 'will they be caught?' The reader know from the outset that "four shot-gun blasts...ended six human lives" - four in the murder, and two at the hands of the penitentiary service by hanging. Instead, Wolfe insists, the suspense relies on the promise of gory details

I paraphrase, but that's the gist. 

So, Capote travelled with Nelle - Harper Lee, that is - to Kansas to begin to investigate the crime. Initially, doors were closed in his face - he was too pompous, too effete for the plain-talking people of Holcombe. But it seems he won their trust - or perhaps it was Nelle's soft Southern manner that encouraged them to open up to him. Whichever way, the opening Acknowledgements thanks certain persons for allowing Capote access to interviews and crucial documents, many of which are reproduced fully or in part in the book. The book took almost 7 years to write, and was only published after the execution of both murderers. 

This is what really appealed to my inner voyeur, I think. When Capote quotes from 16-year-old Nancy Clutter's diary, it's represented accurately. When the nature of Perry Smith's childhood and upbringing is slowly unfurled (the murderer with whom Capote developed a questionable degree of empathy), it's done so through various documents and personal accounts: a grammatically-clumsy letter from his father to a parole board; an interview with his one surviving sibling.

It's real

This hard-working, God-fearing family that Capote brings alive before the reader's eyes really existed. Herb Clutter, the staunch Methodist who had a policy of not employing men who drank. Bonnie Clutter, the matriarch of the family afflicted terribly with a nervous condition, had raised four children in the house her husband had designed and built. Two had flown the nest and two, Nancy and Kenyon, remained at home. Although it sounds like the most archetypal of American stereotypes, Nancy really did have a boyfriend called Bobby; they were 'going steady'. Kenyon was good with his hands; at the time of the murders, he was in the process of finishing a wooden trunk for one of his older sisters. It was to be her wedding present. And somehow their wholesome, All-American lives crossed paths with those of two criminals - one of whom had overheard in jail that there was a wealthy farmer out West by the name of Clutter who had $10,000 in a safe at home. 

There was no safe. Herb Clutter didn't carry money on his person. Smith and his partner in crime took somewhere between forty and fifty dollars from the house. 

This - the reality of it all - is probably the reason I ended up googling images of the crime scene as soon as I'd finished it. 

It was midnight. The pictures were pretty gory. Probably not my brightest idea. 

I had to watch the film, too - I'll be teaching this book alongside the film for one of the International Baccalaureate modules. Needless to say, it's nowhere near as good as the book - it simply can't hope to convey in an hour and three quarters the depth of detail that Capote does in the novel. Unsurprisingly, given the title 'Capote', the director's chosen direction is to probe the man behind the writer's flamboyant persona. It's undoubtedly worth a watch, but if you choose to watch it before reading the book (how very dare you), be aware that it makes far more of Capote's apparent infatuation with Smith, and only scratches the surface of Smith's background or the Clutter family.

At one point, however, it illuminates an interesting point about Capote's possible motivation for writing the book - and the reason he's become so consumed by the case and by Perry. At one point, Capote is questioned about his interest in Smith. He answers matter-of-factly about his own 'lost' childhood - being passed from relative to relative, being misunderstood, feeling 'different'. 'It's as if,' he says, 'we grew up in the same house. And one day he got up and went out the back door, whereas I went out the front.'

This has a big, fat 'RECOMMENDED' stamp on it. Just don't google the murder scene pictures. Or at least don't do it at midnight. 

** Do, however, have a look at the chilling photoshoot Capote arranged with of the two murderers with a known fashion photographer. Just two murderers looking eerily normal; showing their tattoos, smoking, smirking. 


  1. In Cold Blood is one of the best books I've ever read. I read it as a teenager and it stuck with me for years. I recently started listening to it as an audiobook while I was working but it's so much more chilling read aloud, I can only manage a little bit at a time before I get The Fear and have to put it away for a few weeks.

  2. I know I've gushed enough, but I thought it was brilliant. It's given me such a taste for Real Crime. I watched that Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath documentary last night and went to bed whimpering. When will I learn?

  3. That's hardcore. And INSANE, should you ever want to sleep soundly again.


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