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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

As gripping as In Cold Blood was, unfortunately Truman Capote’s ‘Nonfiction Novel’ informs its reader more about Capote’s lack of integrity than it does anything else. Despite this, it’s true – the book is very enjoyable, and I encourage people to check it out. For those who may not know of the book, In Cold Blood details a gruesome 1959 murder in Holcomb, Kansas, a small, and what had been up to the time of the murder, a peaceful and simple farming community in the western portion of the state. This book is often regarded as Truman Capote’s best work, and is especially pertinent for lovers of thrillers, true-crime, and those wanting some perspective on the complexity of capital punishment.

Interwoven throughout the book, Capote supplies biographies for the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as well as for murdered family of four, the Clutters, while also detailing the sequence of events leading up to, surrounding, and after the murder. Ultimately, Capote’s book concludes with an investigation into capital punishment in the United States; as Capote described the murderers life histories and psyches, by the book’s end the reader sees that Capote successfully humanizes these two men on death row, and ultimately leaves it up to the reader to determine the morality of the death penalty – or, just to think about such a consequence for people whom the reader comes to at least somewhat understand by novel’s end. Capote structured this book quite beautifully and his research was exceptionally thorough. Having read the book, it is clear that Capote spent years in Holcomb getting to know the residents of the town, law enforcement officials, the murderers, and pretty much anyone in some way tangentially connected to the Clutters or the murderers.

Aside from the story flowing very well, aside from Capote’s writing being for the most part clear and non-pretentious, and aside from Capote’s diligent research on the novel, please proceed through this novel as if it were fiction. Although many, including Capote, pinpoint the incarnation of the ‘nonfiction novel’ genre- otherwise called ‘narrative journalism’ - to In Cold Blood, the fact is that Capote strayed from the truth on a few occasions, thus damaging the integrity of the book, and of himself. While it is true that journalists from every beat and field deploy their own perspective in their work -- through what they choose to elaborate on versus not elaborate on, through detailed descriptions of certain scenes, people, events – to include untrue dialogue or scenes lacks integrity. After the book’s publication in the 1960s, residents of Holcomb and those involved in the historical event lashed back, claiming that Capote fabricated multiple scenes, such as the scene of blossoming friendship between Perry Smith and the Sheriff’s wife, and the final scene of the book where Detective Dewey sees Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Sue Kidwell, reminiscing in the cemetery. Reading these scenes, they seemed a bit too romantic, fictitious, and exaggerated, too novelistic. Testimonies share that these specific scenes are untrue, and in effect I began looking back at other memorable scenes with skepticism. Especially since these two false scenes happened at the end of the book, Capote’s final pages and thus his whole book began to sour.

I would have respected Capote all the more if he had stayed honest throughout the duration of the novel and not inserted dishonest dialogue or scenes for the sake of building the story, for the sake of infusing this piece of journalism with his novelistic flare; as it was, Capote put in the leg work by way of his thorough research (apparently he accumulated 8,000 plus pages of notes!), and he had already succeeded in treading the fine line between expressing creative liberties through description, storytelling, and language, while also maintaining the book’s being ‘nonfiction.’ So why fabricate? In my opinion, there is fiction, and there is non-fiction, and any deviation from an indisputably true account - especially with respect to the scenes discussed and the quotes incorporated – is fiction. Readers already know that sometimes specific descriptions or elaborations tilt nonfiction towards fiction; overtly false information yields another story. We all see the present and past world differently, so while all perceive different non-fiction realities, to include false quotes and scenes extends beyond the inherently flexible bounds of the truth; considering Capote’s credentials as a successful writer, he surely knew that he had stretched, to the point of snapping, the truth. Especially since Capote began his book with the disclaimer that all information within the book was true, and since he claimed he had invented this nonfiction novel genre, his shortcomings are especially pervasive.

Image from LIFE Magazine, May 12, 1967. Shortly after publication, this novel was adapted into a movie

Another moment in the final portion of the book forced me to question Capote’s intentions, and thus his character. With a few pages left in the book Capote inserted himself into the story after having narrated for the entirety of the book from an omniscient third-party vantage point. From what I understand, Capote lived a somewhat petty life and lived flamboyantly and somewhat offensively, inviting and disinviting people from parties, the epitome of a status climbing, gossiping socialite. This first-person insertion with a mere few pages left tarnished what had been up to that point a fine piece of journalism in which we, the reader, knew that Capote was present and unconsciously accredited him for his attention to detail and gentle perceptiveness; so why did he insert himself at the end, as if to remind the reader that he, Truman Capote, did all this work, that he knew the murderers and subjected himself to their whims in the prison’s visiting rooms, that he sat in on the trial and listened to each and every tape during the investigation and interrogation processes? We already knew this. If Truman Capote set out to write an unbiased, true piece of long-form journalism, then he should have done that; and he did, until the final pages with this insertion and with his inclusion of a few untrue scenes and dialogue.

Read the book, but keep in mind Capote’s distortion of reality. As time progresses and nonfiction novels (narrative journalism) becomes more popular, it might be easy to look book at the 1966 publishing of In Cold Blood as the beginning of a new genre. Not quite.

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