No book ever frightened me as much as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Merely reading the New York Times review caused me a sleepless night. I was 15 when I first read it, and the story of a family murdered in their Kansas home was an inexorable horror show. But the quality of Capote’s writing was undeniable. Many readings since have only caused my admiration to grow for his stark prose and the detail of his observations.
At the time of publication, Capote, who seemingly couldn’t live without stirring up controversy, boasted that “In Cold Blood” represented his invention of a new format: the “nonfiction novel.” He detailed how he had adapted the techniques of fiction to the reporting of true events, though in truth this format was not new. The New Yorker had prided itself on this style of reportage for years, and in fact John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Lillian Ross’s “Picture,” both of which had originally appeared in that publication, were frequently cited by reviewers who maintained that others had gotten there long before Capote.
It turns out that “novel” may have trumped “nonfiction” in the case of “In Cold Blood” more than first suspected. To a certain extent this is not exactly news. Various sources have revealed over the years that Capote molded the story to an unusual degree to suit his ends, going so far as to invent certain incidents such as the book’s final scene, an accidental meeting at the Clutter grave site of Nancy Clutter’s best friend and Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective whom Capote credits with solving the case. More recently Charles J. Shields’ biography of Harper Lee, “Mockingbird,” provided tantalizing details of what Lee learned about Holcomb, Kansas as well as the Clutters while assisting Capote in his research, specifically the extent to which Mrs. Clutter’s illness cast a shadow over her daughter’s life. As per Lee’s notes, Capote feared that such information would mar the image of the all-American family he intended to portray and refused to include it in his book.
This month the heirs of Harold Nye, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who worked the Clutter case, won the right to publish his notebooks and other material relating to the murders and their investigation. For a number of years KBI agents and their survivors have disputed Capote’s depiction of how law enforcement identified and captured the murderers, so it should be fascinating to see how Nye’s contemporaneous notes gibe with “In Cold Blood.” Capote famously declined to take notes during his interviews with the various sources for his book, relying instead on memory to reconstruct what had been related to him. Logic tells you this technique is not the best to ensure accuracy, no matter how prodigious the powers of recall, so a newly revealed account should be an interesting contrast to “In Cold Blood.”
Should we fault Capote for the manner of his presentation? He never said his work was journalism, which as we know isn’t always 100% on the money as every newspaper’s “Corrections” section can attest (too bad certain cable stations fail to air their apologies in similar fashion). Aren’t works of nonfiction, not to mention documentary film, inevitably the result of choices made by the author or director to include or exclude certain material, to interpret and to present a point of view? Capote may have erred on various facts or misrepresented whether certain events took place, such as that grave site meeting, but I’d be surprised to learn that he distorted either participant’s emotions or views. And as for attributing the breakthroughs in the case to one man, Capote evidently felt the book needed a hero: Alvin Dewey, a solid family man who knew the Clutters. By doing so Capote enables us to see events unfold through the eyes of an individual whom we come to know, so that the climactic passage of the book, Perry Smith’s confession to Dewey, carries the horror that it should.
Capote’s initial impulse in writing about these events was to show the impact of a murder upon a small town. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we hear the stunned remarks of Holcomb residents and view the image of fearful townsfolk sitting up all night with every light burning in their homes. What people say and do in the aftermath of murder can be astonishing, as witness the wedding of one of the older Clutter daughters two days after the funeral of her parents and younger siblings. In a way it makes sense—her entire extended family was in Holcomb and the church had already been booked for the next month—but reading Capote’s account, it seems incredibly strange. On the other hand, I saw similar reactions many years later. When I was still living the corporate life, my boss of ten years was murdered; to date the case remains unsolved. How I saw people behave in the aftermath was no less odd, not to mention at times insulting and occasionally just plain weird. Let me just say that Capote’s observations in this regard ring very true.
“In Cold Blood” is more than a milestone in the true crime genre. It’s included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books written in English during the 20th century, residing alongside some fast company indeed. It remains a classic.