In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Truth is in the eye of the beholder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In November 1959, two men drove into the small Kansas farming community of Holcomb, broke into the Clutter family’s home and brutally murdered the four occupants, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. Before the murderers were caught, Truman Capote decided to write about the crime, so went to Holcomb to interview friends and neighbours of the victims, residents of the town, and the men investigating the case. It wasn’t long before the perpetrators were identified and captured, so Capote continued his project by writing about the trial and its aftermath – the imprisonment and execution of the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock. This book, first published in 1966, is the result.

Capote approaches the subject from three angles, the victims, the townspeople and the murderers, with the narrative rotating among them. The Clutters, as portrayed here, were fine people, upstanding members of their community and their church, good neighbours and well respected. The children, especially Nancy, seem almost too good to be true, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much the old adage of never speaking ill of the dead had influenced the picture Capote paints. So even at this early stage of the book, I had begun to wonder how much reliance could be placed on Capote’s account of the people involved.

This feeling grew as the book progressed and Capote recounted as if they were facts things that he could only have learned from his interviews. While this may be fair enough with regards to the innocent people involved (though even then, oral testimony, especially when given not under oath, is notoriously unreliable), taking the words of Hickock and Smith at their own evaluation and drawing inferences as to their characters from this shaky evidence left me in a kind of limbo as to whether the book should be considered “true crime” or a fictionalised novel. I believe it gets categorised as a “non-fiction novel” – a description that seems deeply contradictory and problematic to me, designed to allow inaccuracies to pass unchallenged.

Book 37 of 90

To be clear, I found it extremely readable and, viewing it as fiction, the characterisation of the murderers is wholly credible. Capote seeks to understand them by going back through their early experiences for clues as to why they turned out as they did. Smith in particular had a terrible childhood, with an alcoholic mother who pretty much abandoned him and a father who was at best an intermittent presence and a disruptive one at that. Hickock is more difficult to pigeon-hole – his family seemed both respectable and caring. Capote ventures into psychiatry for answers, using the reports that were drawn up for the men by their defence team. He gives a relatively nuanced picture, neither seeking to whitewash them nor to wholly condemn.

His portrayal of the impact of this horrific crime on the small community is equally convincing. In a place where people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors at night, the intrusion of this horror seemed incredible, and Capote shows how for the first time neighbour began to suspect and fear neighbour. The arrest and conviction of the murderers couldn’t wholly put the genie back in the bottle, as Capote describes it – the townspeople’s feelings of security would never be the same.

An interesting omission is the perspective of the Clutters’ two older daughters, neither of whom lived at home. While Capote gives us some facts about them, we don’t get to know them at all nor to learn how they fared in the future. I could only assume that they refused to be interviewed for the book.

Some of the later scenes felt too contrived to be true, and I later learned on looking at wikipedia that some of the people involved had indeed denied their truth. For example, the scene where the wife of Perry’s jailer holds his hand while he sobs after being sentenced to death felt like something written for a Cagney film (or perhaps copied from one). And the super convenient final scene, played out between the chief investigator and one of the friends of young Nancy, now all grown up, provides a heartwarming conclusion of the restoration of order and the rebirth of all that is good and hopeful in life, and I didn’t believe a single word of it. According to wikipedia, the investigator later denied that it ever happened.

Truman Capote

So I have very mixed feelings about the book overall. It’s not got the essential truth to be true crime, and yet it’s presented too factually to really be considered a novel. And yet, it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth – certainly emotional credibility, at any rate. I quite understand why it has a reputation as a classic of the genre – I’m just not sure what genre it’s a classic of. Perhaps it should be viewed as a one-off, uncategorisable. And as such, I’m happy to recommend it.

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31 thoughts on “In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  1. I have heard very positive things about this book but have never been sure if I wanted to read it. Thanks FF for your very nuanced review – I can imagine feeling the same uncertainties about the integrity of the story.

    • I do still think it’s well worth reading, despite my reservations over the integrity. It is an odd mix, though, and I was glad that wiki was able to confirm that the bits that felt most unreal to me had been disputed by the people involved. On the whole, I prefer there to be a clearer distinction between “true” and “fiction”…

  2. I have the same thoughts on it you have written here. I am for placing it as undescribable. At times it rang true, others it felt beautified or stretched to achieve closure. But it is beautifully written, and to me, a non born American, it gave me a lot of an era, a slice of Americana. I cannot forget this book if I wanted. Thanks for your review.

    • It’s certainly hard to categorise. On the whole I prefer it to be made clearer what is “true” and what comes from the writer’s imagination, but like you I did think it’s beautifully written and well worth reading. And I felt the overall picture of the time and place felt true, even if some of the “facts” weren’t…

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 😀 It’s well worth reading despite my reservations about how much reliance can be placed on the “truth” of it. I can see why it’s a classic, although I’m glad most true crime tries to stick more closely to provable facts…

  3. Christine, my apologies for butting in. It’s so unique that I find it of incredible worth. I was also reticent, and I am glad it was chosen for book club after I recommended it following others recommendations as well. Everybody liked having read it.

  4. This is an excellent review, FictionFan. And you’re absolutely right that this is hard to categorise. One can’t really call it non-fiction; on the other hand, it also isn’t, strictly speaking, fiction, either. I’ve heard books like this referred to as ‘untrue crime.’ And that category intrigues. One of the things that has always struck me about this novel is the skill with which Capote builds the tension and keeps it going, even after the murders. It’s quite atmospheric, regardless what what label it carries…

    • Thank you, Margot! 😀 Yes, I saw that you described it as “untrue crime” when you spotlighted it the other week, but on the whole I find that description as problematic as “non-fiction novel”. On the whole, I prefer a clearer divide between factual books and fiction since I found I was distracted a little by wondering what bits were, in fact, true. But definitely atmospheric, and I felt he got an overall feeling of emotional credibility even if he played with the facts a bit. Glad I’ve finally read it, anyway!

  5. I was eager to learn what you thought from the moment you announced that you were reading this. This is a difficult book, as you mentioned, to pigeonhole. Great review as usual.

    • Thanks, L. Marie! 😀 It is an odd mix, and on the whole I prefer a clearer divide between factual books and fiction, but the quality of the writing makes it work, and in the end I felt it came over as emotionally credible, even if he played with the facts a bit…

    • This is my first introduction to Capote and, despite my reservations, I was very impressed by his writing, so I’ll definitely be reading more of him in the future. Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  6. I enjoyed this book, but I agree that it is in a weird genre of…what? True crime? Fiction? Memoir? It’s definitely not typical, but it is still interesting!

    • Ha – yes, I’m still not sure how to categorise it – I think I was expecting a more traditional “true crime” style. But I do feel he got to some kind of emotional truth in the end, and I was impressed by the quality of his writing. One I’m glad to have finally read! 😀

  7. Well, I haven’t read this one, but at least now I know why! Having been a reporter for years, I covered court trials like this, and I’ve learned that they’re often much more complex than they appear at first glance. Part of me wishes Capote had decided to completely fictionalize the entire event — or to do a totally true account. One or the other. ‘Tis hard to rationalize nonfiction-novel!!

    • On the whole, I do prefer either a fully factual or fully fictional account, so I struggled with that aspect of it. But I do still think it’s well worth reading – I feel he did get to some kind of truth about the murderers even if he played with the facts a bit, and it’s certainly beautifully written. I don’t think I’ll be actively seeking out more “non-fiction novels”. though – if there are any more of them!

  8. A brilliant review and one that broadly covers my feelings of the book. Although I share your concerns regarding the misnomer which is non-fiction novel I also think that any true crime is always going to need some elements of fiction whether intended or otherwise because where do you go to get the unvarnished truth. What I found more disconcerting was those interviews carried out ‘undercover’ which are then presented as truth and like you I noted the omissions of the other family members.
    If anything this is one of those books that has grown on me even more in the intervening time since I read it and I now really notice the elements more modern ‘true-crime’ writers employ that were utilised by Truman Capote here.

    • Thank you! 😀 I think it was the reporting of the townspeople’s conversations and gossip that bothered me most – it did give a real feel for the town, but I got distracted by wondering what bits were “true”. And the same applies to the info he got directly from the murderers – I wasn’t prepared to take any of that at face value really. But I do agree that most true crime relies on the author’s selection and interpretation of “facts” – like all the Ripper books, which “prove” that at least ninety-seven different people were definitely the Ripper! At least we’ve both finally read it though! Another one ticked off the list… 😉

  9. It is a book that divides opinion – namely my own! I always felt that Capote threw in his own flourishes to make it a better ‘read’ but there is no denying how compelling it is.

    • Ha! Yes, as you can tell, it divided mine too! Definitely compelling, and though on the whole I prefer a clearer divide between fact and fiction, I’m still glad to have read it finally.

  10. You’ve really hit the nail on the head, Fiction Fan. It’s such a great book but what genre is it?? “Enjoy” is not the right word for something so gruesome but this was so absorbing for me when I read it a few years ago. Great review!

    • Thanks, Laila! 😀 Yes, it’s hard to categorise and in general I prefer either all fact or all fiction, but I did find it compelling, I must read some of his proper fiction one day…

  11. This is one of those books that I’ve ‘always wanted to read’ but sadly, will probably never get to. Maybe when I’m retired? Anyway, have you seen the movie? I think it won a couple awards if I’m not mistaken….

    • It’s not actually all that long and it reads more flowingly than most non-fiction, so you should be able to fit it in in your retirement quite easily! Oh, no, thank for the reminder – I meant to see if the movie is available and then forgot… I shall do that now… 😀

  12. I, too, was suspicious of some of the stories Capote tells in this book (particular the one at the end), but they are so well done and everything is so perfectly written…I’m okay being swept away in a mix of journalism and story-telling. Great Review!

    • Thank you, and thanks for commenting. 😀 I think I prefer a clearer divide between fiction and fact, so my doubts over accuracy took some of the shine off this one. But I agree about how well it’s done.

  13. […] FictonFan’s Book Reviews: “It’s not got the essential truth to be true crime, and yet it’s presented too factually to really be considered a novel. And yet, it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth – certainly emotional credibility, at any rate.” […]

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