In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Renewed popularity in the true crime genre has brought with it a slew of ethical dilemmas. Whether it be a feature documentary about a religious cult or a weekly podcast that aims to investigate a local homicide, the moral responsibility of the people telling these stories is something that’s become increasingly important to put under the microscope. What obligation does a creator have to give the victim in their story a voice? What about the survivors? Can a criminal be given too much sympathy? Is Truth really the goal? And if it isn’t, how much is the creator willing to lie in order to entertain? Nevertheless, while questions such as these are always relevant they also aren’t anything new.
In Cold Blood was written by Truman Capote over a six-year period in the 1960s. It outlines the real-life murders of the Clutter family at the hands of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. The events are laid out in a linear fashion so that you’re given a beat by beat description of everything that happened. There is no mystery as to who committed the crime. If you’re familiar with the history of it, there isn’t even a question as to whether they’ll be caught. Rather, what makes it a compulsive read is the literary qualities that Capote utilized when putting it all together. At the time, the non-fiction novel was an entirely new genre in which the objectivity of journalism was merged with the storytelling methods of fiction. This style of writing can be traced back further than Truman Capote, but thanks in large part to his inimitable grasp of language, character and structure, as well as his intimate knowledge of the Clutter case, the work became an instant classic of American literature. Even so, a year after its publication the journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe said of In Cold Blood that:
The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset… Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.
In essence, Wolfe was critical of how Capote teased his readership with hints of the horrors to come before he rewarded them with scenes of murder that left so little to the imagination many people would call them obscene. The criticism had some merit. For readers who enjoy crime stories more for the crimes than for the lessons that can be gleaned from them, In Cold Blood doesn’t fall short on the salacious front. But it’s unfair to declare that this is the books defining trait. Tragedy is at the core of In Cold Blood. By outlining the inevitably of that terrible night in the town of Holcomb, Capote was able to examine the mechanisms of it in a way that’s very different than if he’d written it like a classic murder-mystery wherein the crime would have been seen from some obscured viewpoint and the motivation would have been unknown until the final chapter. There’s a painful sense of despair that Capote was able to explore by portraying the murderers and the victims as vehicles locked on a collision course. Moreover, it was a despair he explored further still by rifling through the detritus of the crash.
The killers of In Cold Blood have no trouble living up to the book’s title. Perry Smith is a sensitive soul, but he undergoes dangerous bouts of psychosis on a number of occasions, while Richard Hickock is a remorseless huckster who runs over dogs on the road for fun. When they hatch a plan to rob the wealthy Clutter family they each commit to the idea that there should not be a single witness left alive. That said, Perry does seem a little reluctant, but any discussions he and Richard have about it usually devolve into petty squabbles over other minor details and when the Clutter family are dead, his initial reaction on reading about it in the newspaper is only to be impressed by the high turnout at the family’s funeral. It isn’t exactly the cry of a guilty conscience, but as you follow the men on their getaway journey, Capote gives over a substantial portion of the book to depict them as multidimensional creatures with pain all of their own. Perry, as it turns out, had a terrible upbringing. His mother was an alcoholic, he was sent to an orphanage where an abusive nun almost drowned him in a bath, and when he eventually escaped childhood and joined the American military he was the victim of sexual assault. Richard, on the other hand, comes from a much more stable background and was a relatively upstanding citizen until he suffered a major head injury which his parents blamed for his disturbing switch to a life of crime. All told, you’re given plenty of reason to sympathise with these men, even after they massacre the Clutters, but just as you learn about their sorry origins, you’re challenged to find the good in them as they continue down a road of delinquency that includes yet more theft and the expressed intent to murder another man. Many critics would say that to demonstrate any redeeming qualities in such evildoers is to offer a kind of forgiveness when all that’s required of society is to tighten the noose around their necks. But while Capote’s work can certainly be read as sympathetic to Richard and Perry, it also grants us a much broader understanding of the tragedy than if we only read a report of the murders.
At one point, we learn of Perry’s sister, who by the grace of circumstance has managed to recover from her own terrible childhood and who now routinely lectures Perry on the need to learn respect for both their father and authority in general. The attitude is sickening to Perry. As it so happens, he states that his only regret about the night of the murders is that it wasn’t his sister they killed instead. Richard also vocalises a wish that it had been his ex-wife they murdered and it becomes abundantly clear that as unhinged as these two men are, they’re all too aware that on some level their actions were caused by injustices from their past. Perry is sure, in fact, that there must be something wrong with them given what they did and the complete lack of remorse either of them feel for doing it.
During the period of the book’s release, the general public’s understanding of psychology was becoming increasingly sophisticated and the criminal mind was of particular fascination. Just five years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock had gripped moviegoers with the twisted tale of Pyscho. But even that masterpiece of exploitation cinema could only explain the behaviour of its fictional serial killer with a tacked-on information dump at the end of the film. In lieu of this clumsy narrative choice, Capote packed his curious readers into the backseat of Richard and Perry’s stolen car and had them experience the rage, fear and grief as they did; two men lost to the world and trapped in a compulsive loop of antisocial behaviour. The structural difference obviously had the benefit of making the criminals’ motivations a lot more engaging, but it wasn’t the only unique aspect Capote brought to the table. There’s an episode towards the end of the fugitives’ run where they join a young boy and his dying grandfather to collect bottles from the side of the road. The bottles, according to the boy, can be traded for a small amount of money which could fix the men up with a little lunch and some much-needed gas. Their time with the boy becomes a bit of a merry treasure hunt, but in the end, they go separate ways, nothing resolved in any of their miserable lives besides what they were going to eat that day. It’s a bittersweet interlude that puts the killers in stark contrast to a more noble form of humanity and epitomizes the type of story that Capote was especially predisposed to tell — one in which the morbid is blended with nostalgia for what was lost.
During the course of the investigation at the centre of In Cold Blood, Capote quotes one of the detectives as having said, ‘Of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.’
The book opens on the Clutter farm, a perfect slice of American rural life where the serious-minded Herbert Clutter has built one of the most prosperous agricultural operations in western Kansas. Despite their financial success, life remains relatively quaint for the Clutter family. Herbert is stern but kind to his workers, his daughter alternates between studying and baking pies, his son is a practical-minded kid who likes to build stuff, and though his wife suffers from a form of depression that limits most of her time to bed, they’re each thought of fondly in a town where the worst offence a policeman could expect to deal with is a drunken brawl. Capote was uniquely well placed to write about such a location. He found success early in his career with Other Voices, Other Rooms… a novel that was heavily based on his childhood experience of moving to a similarly rural area at a very young age. In it, the boy who acts as a stand-in for him is often disturbed by the stranger aspects of his new country home, but the story also evokes a sentimental attachment to some of the more peculiar characters he meets there. It’s an interesting book to consider alongside In Cold Blood because Capote demonstrates just as much affection when he describes the town of Holcomb. This is a place where the insurance company that awards the surviving Clutter relatives their payment does so because it’s the moral thing to do despite the fact that there exists no legal obligation, but beyond that, Capote brings so much loving detail to the illustration of the town that he even takes the time to give the cats and dogs that walk the main street personalities of their own.
Still, the bygone innocence that characterises Holcomb is only one part of Capote’s particular style of Americana. In Cold Blood wouldn’t have been a story of his own if he didn’t pair it with a distinct taste for the macabre.
A mere five pages after we’re introduced to this idyllic paradise we’re told that the Clutter family are hours away from being murdered. Richard and Perry, we know, are barrelling towards them with every intention of gunning them down. Given the parallels between the country location and Capote’s own childhood experience, it almost feels like he’s plucked up evil incarnate and dropped it into the memories of his past. Much has been said of his ability to get inside the heads of these two murderers. Capote himself even supposed that they were kindred spirits of a sort — a writer from a difficult background who could turn people inside out with the stroke of his pen and the pair of felons who were compelled to do it in a more literal manner. But if this savagery was a trait of Capote’s personality, it was completely at odds with his more wholesome values. As a result, the discovery of the Clutter murders is written as nothing short of an existential crisis for the town and in many ways it became one of the chief reactions Capote aimed to record.
For much of the novel, the police investigating the murders have absolutely no clue who could have killed the Clutters. As it so happened, there was no money in the house that night, so very little was actually taken, and by any rational interpretation, the only explanation for such a horrific scene would have been revenge. Maybe there was a business dispute, they theorise, or a jealous lover. At no point can the police entertain the possibility that it was somebody who had no vendetta against the family and that in reality the perpetrators could easily have robbed the place without hurting a single person. Sadly, as readers we know how off the mark they actually are and as the town circles around the possibility that it was exactly what the police couldn’t fathom (a meaningless, coldblooded act to which no real motive could be ascribed) we begin to see the implications of it creep through the book’s characters like a rampant virus.
For example, when the town’s postmistress expresses her despair at the deaths of the Clutter family being no more unique than any other, she says, ‘If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity.’
When Perry’s sister is asked why their much more respectable brother ended his own life, she states that, ‘Virtue was no defence.’
When the criminals are finally caught, Capote remarks of the detectives attitude to the case that, ‘The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning.’
And when another local is asked about the Clutters being murdered, she states, ‘It’s like being told there is no God.’
These nihilistic reactions aren’t really surprising, they’re expected even, but it’s hard to imagine that there weren’t more life-affirming comments among the townsfolk, for example, a preacher who would have been at the ready with some well-worn proverb about how God always has a plan. Taken together, it’s clear that Capote had a taste for the melancholy and his own feelings about the event are understood in how he curated the reactions of the people he interviewed. After all, there aren’t a lot of journalists who’d describe the gauze wrapped head of a teenage girl’s corpse as, ‘glittering like a Christmas tree.’ Of course, this in and of itself isn’t necessarily a criticism. Though the book claims to be an utterly true description of the murders, even the most objective version would have had to grapple with the problem of how the way in which every detail is laid out there can be a serious impact on how the overall story is received. At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of a writer and their editors to hold themselves accountable for how decoratively they arrange the truth, but, realistically speaking, they’re only human, and the standards to which they aspire to can vary greatly depending on what other temptations might at large. In the case of Truman Capote though, his bouquet of words would become less a question of how much style is too much and more one of when does it become an outright fabrication?
In Cold Blood is a stunning example of writerly technique. Capote was a master at capturing dialect in his prose and as already evidenced the structural choices he made for the book set it apart from the usual cliches of crime writing. But beyond the larger framework on which he reconstructed the events, there’s also an enormous amount of flair shown in how he rendered them on a chapter by chapter basis. Some sections of the book are limited to the point of view of the criminals. Others switch over to a journalistic interview style. There are entire sections of the novel dedicated to newspaper reports. And all of it is bandied about with such ease, you might not even notice the startlingly complex prism of perspectives through which you experience the tale. Capote said of his short stories that there wasn’t a goal when writing them to fit the narrative within a predetermined shape, rather, the structure was something to be found along the way and that he would know it was the most appropriate one when he couldn’t imagine the story being told in any other manner. The same sense of inspiration can be felt with In Cold Blood. One particular moment that stands out is when the lead detective receives word that Richard and Perry have been caught. The entire scene is told from the perspective of his wife, who watches the telephone conversation unfold and is stunned by the urgency as her husband rushes out the door. It’s a wonderful demonstration of that classic writing rule; show-don’t-tell, but like Capote said, when you really sit down and think about it, in the context of the book it’s difficult to imagine the episode being told a different way. Indeed, as you get lost in the superbly handled narrative there are very few times you lift your head from the page to recognise a particularly clever approach, and yet, for all the seeming effortlessness Capote demonstrates when pulling off these stylistic flourishes, it does bring to mind another reference to Alfred Hitchcock.
There was a common trope among older movies wherein a scene that included a fireplace would feature a shot from behind the flames. Hitchcock joked about how ridiculous these shots were because, in his words, ‘Nobody can get inside the fire, they’ll get burnt.’ The point being that the audience is taken out of the moment when they begin to wonder where the cameraman is hiding.
Likewise, the writing of In Cold Blood is invisible in all of the most important ways, but the illusion only holds up until you start to remember that it’s supposed to be a true account of everything surrounding the Clutter murders. The reality is, there is a myriad of private details sprinkled throughout the book that force you to wonder how the hell Capote could have known about them. As a result, the more intimate the book gets, the less it reads like a transcript from, ‘God’s stenographer,’ and you increasingly begin to feel the presence of Capote as a character in the story, a sleazy snoop, poking around people’s lives and maybe even going through their rubbish to find out what they had for breakfast.
Over the six years Capote spent writing the book, he supposedly took eight-thousand pages of notes. Presumably, these were compiled from the interviews he undertook with the police, townsfolk, and of course the criminals themselves. The notes also would have included the deeply personal papers he had access to. Nancy Clutter, the sixteen-year-old girl who Richard and Perry murdered, kept a diary which Capote was allowed to read, so paired with the numerous witness reports he gathered and the extensive amount of time he spent in the town of Holcomb, he had a reasonably good idea of what the last hours of the Clutter family were really like. What’s more, on top of this acute attention to detail, he often managed to go further still, such that he even described a photograph of Richard and Perry that was taken by a complete stranger during their brief stint in Mexico. To all appearances, Capote had an unbelievable dedication to identifying every atom that was in play during both the build-up to the murders and in their fallout. Astonishingly, he was so sure of himself in this regard that he wasn’t beyond making the erroneous claim that In Cold Blood was the first book of its type and that no better example of the genre would ever be written. The first claim was transparently false, but of the second, he might actually have been able to rest assured if only for one troubling fact.
In 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported that there are elements of In Cold Blood that seem to have been exaggerated and others that were clearly just made up.
A lot of the controversy stems from what has been described as Capote’s mutually beneficial relationship with the lead detective who helped him to win the trust of the townspeople and who even allowed him to examine sensitive evidence. As a result, it’s insinuated that Capote was extremely kind with his portrayal of the man. In Cold Blood omits five days in which the police ignored a lead that would have led to the criminals’ arrest. In reality, the detective was stubbornly focused on the theory that the murders must have been committed by a local person, but in the book he and his staff are consistently portrayed as professional lawmen, ever ready to reevaluate a piece of evidence in their dogged search for the truth. There are countless more suspicious reports that have surfaced beyond The Wall Street Journal’s article, such as the jail keeper’s wife, who in the book is said to have had a soft spot for Perry, but who in real life denied ever having expressed such feelings. And if the verbal claims aren’t enough, there have also been written letters cited in which Capote asked the lead detective’s wife to provide further details for a scene but that in actuality he wouldn’t mind just inventing details himself. Most worrying of all though is the matter of Perry Smith’s final words. Both he and Richard spent five years on death row. Their stay was long, sometimes introspective, and on the day of execution Perry was finally able to sum up his thoughts which Capote transcribed as:
Maybe I had something to contribute—It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize.
The sentiment is sober and, one would presume, heartfelt. But by all other accounts, most notably the official report featured in the Garden City Telegram, Perry never actually uttered these words. As far as the state of Kansas is concerned, he shuffled up the gallows and exited this mortal coil only after expressing his disgust at the complete lack of morality there is in executing a man. The discrepancy in Capote’s version is mind-boggling. The lapse in judgement it took to include such a distortion doesn’t just call into question his credibility as a writer, but for the book itself, a story that originally garnered most of its accolades based on the assurance that it was an act of journalism.
In Cold Blood was released as a non-fiction novel in 1966, but prior to that The New Yorker published it as a four-part series where it provoked the kind of excitement that only a serialised format can enjoy. Like a modern true-crime podcast, it was distributed on a week by week basis, thus gathering interest with each new episode. It’s obvious that the main benefit of such a format is its ability to generate a buzz and when you couple this with Capote’s insistence that the work should be considered more of a work of art than a piece of journalism, you can imagine what kind of mental gymnastics he would have performed when deciding to warp the truth. Yet in the absence of social media and a publishing industry that was willing to question such an enormous money-spinner, the backlash to its utter falsehoods have taken decades to drip out and the reaction to them has been correspondingly tame. Even so, the decision to alter such crucial facts seems incredibly shortsighted for a man who was famously invested in his legacy as one of America’s greatest writers. All of this is to say, among the innumerable transgressions Capote committed when claiming to have put together an accurate record, why on earth did he feel the need to lie about Perry Smith’s final words when they would have been so easy for anybody to check?
As famously portrayed in the 1999 film, Capote, and the lesser realised film, Infamous, over the course of writing the book the author became somewhat of a friend to the two criminals as he interviewed them in their jail cells. Perry in particular was a character Capote appears to have sympathised with; a banished animal whose violent episodes weren’t exactly difficult to understand given the terrible life he’d been lumped with.
Throughout the story, Perry is often portrayed as the more conscientious criminal. It’s Richard who’s drawn as the bloodthirsty one. But at the end of the tale when their brutal acts are finally shown in all their gruesome glory, the twist is that it was Perry who slit poor Herbert Clutters throat and then shot him in the back of the head. It was Perry who claimed to have killed everybody in the house. And while the text leaves some doubt for this, there’s little cause to doubt that on the night itself it was Perry’s manic behaviour that drove all of the murders to happen. Yet in every other manner, Capote constructed the story and revelations in such a way that for all the evils Perry committed, in some way, there was something in him that was worthy of forgiveness.
Of his Perry’s words, it might have been the case that Capote saw the nascent form of a guilty conscience and felt compelled to have the man say in fiction what he never could in reality. Even so, it isn’t crazy to imagine that Perry actually did express those words of regret, if not at the time of execution, then maybe in the months prior. Given the other tweaks Capote made, he could have simply moved them to where all of the anger, irony and sorrow they contained could be squeezed for every last drip. Of course, it’s just as possible he merely contrived the sentiment to create a more powerful ending. Regardless, for all the questions of journalistic integrity it’s clear there was a very particular worldview that was expressed through them and a literary benefit to be gained. Tom Wolfe wasn’t entirely wrong when he criticized the book for stringing the reader along with the promise of gory details. It was a cynical way to approach a detective story. But as a successor to books like Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, in which a man murders a pawnbroker and struggles to understand why the ends don’t justify the means, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, in which the murder that sets the plot in motion is depicted as just another arbitrary happening in a meaningless universe, In Cold Blood is a worthy successor that presents its own philosophical quagmire in which to get bogged down. The romanticized portrait of the Clutter family and the flattering way Capote portrayed the police investigation are combined with the monstrous acts of the convicts and the apparent regret of the man most responsible for them. As such, on the surface the book can be read as a reassurance that though paradise has been lost, there are still guardians in world and redemption for those who brought it to an end. But that’s only when looking at it through one eye. When you open the other you can see that this lesson only exists as part of a stereoscopic vision in which there is also a lamentation for the absolute despair that such beauty and horror can live side by side. Yes Capote lied, but when viewed in this manner, it’s fair to say that it appears to have been for the sake of constructing a better novel rather than just because of a favour he owed.
Today, In Cold Blood remains listed as the second-best-selling true crime novel right after Vincent Bugliosi’s, Helter Skelter, which presented the first-hand accounts of the Manson murders. Nevertheless, as far as household names go Charles Manson has long since eclipsed Vincent Bugliosi and the title of his book. Not so in the case of Richard Hickcock and Perry Smith. In the years since it’s publication, In Cold Blood and Truman Capote have mostly withstood the criticisms against their warped version of history and only grown in popular imagination. The artistic licence, if we’re to use a kinder term to describe what Capote did, was handled with such self-assuredness that the book itself has become larger than anything that might have happened in real life. It’s worth pointing out that the lies many people feel weaken Capote’s work aren’t something that most critics worry about when it comes to exploring true stories in other mediums. In point of fact, the Bennett Miller picture starring Philip Seymour Hoffman grants itself a huge amount of leeway when it comes to telling us how the book was made, but it’s hard to imagine it being condemned for its own embellishments. At the very least, it’s mostly accepted that the so-called true stories of film should be taken with a grain of salt and that when they’re at their best the creative liberties they employ allow us access to a far greater Truth than that of a mirror held to the side of the road. As a work of journalism, In Cold Blood is reprehensible. It was a mistake to claim that everything in its pages was one-hundred per cent accurate. An offence to the ideals of journalism, a stain on the industry that lauded it, and disrespectful to the surviving members of the Clutter family. Moreover, even though the success of the book benefited the world by shining a light on issues of mental illness and the death penalty, the ground on which it stands has become so shaky it’s forever damaged as a point of interest in any meaningful sociological conversation. Yet if you’re able to ignore the epigraph that states it’s a true account and instead concentrate on Capote’s insistence that it should first and foremost be considered a work of art in which he applies his style sheet for fiction to an event that began as something real, it’s a masterwork of novel writing craft — though be it one forever tied to a morally questionable origin.
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