My Third Capote – In Cold Blood

Clutter home, Holcomb, Kansas, USA

Thanks to a recent op shop safari with a close friend, my bedside stack of books has increased exponentially. Add to that my weakness for the orange Penguin Classics it seems that my “to read” list is ever-increasing and never-ending. I am endeavouring to make headway to my list however I can never decide which to approach first – The Iliad, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Cal Bruton’s autobiography, and about a billion other options. My most recent Penguin completion is one that upon having finished it I am a little embarrassed I had not read it earlier, especially with the love I have for Truman Capote’s other works.

For those who have not read it (and I infinitely recommend that you do) Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is quite simply a masterpiece. In 1959, Capote noticed a small newspaper item describing the mysterious murder of a Kansas ranch family of four. Five years of intense research followed, during which time Capote became very close to the two murderers, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith. He talked to the townspeople of Holcomb, where the murders were committed, and nearby Garden City. He followed the police investigation and the eventual appeals process until the execution of Hickock and Smith in 1965.

The foremost thought that came to mind upon finishing In Cold Blood was the incredulity that it was non-fiction. The way in which Capote painted such a vivid picture of Holcomb, of the Clutters and of Smith and Hickock is phenomenal. The amount of research Capote would have done is astounding, having immersed himself in the case and the community so much so that he and the Deweys became lifelong friends. What also blows me away is that during interviews he never took notes or used a tape recorder; instead he was able to transcribe the interviews from memory, a skill he had been practicing for years.

I found that Capote in both ICB and his two other works I have read (Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Summer Crossing) was able to explore the human condition, which I think is a fundamental principle of writing whether that be fiction or factual. The main characters in those books all possess a sense of tragedy about them that places them on the edge of sympathy. I will admit that at points of ICB I found myself sympathising with Perry Smith (though never Hickock). From Hercule Poirot and countless other fictional detectives and crime fighters I had learned that both an examination of the victims and an exploration of their character were vital in solving murders and the like. ICB starkly shies away from that, painting an idealised version of the Clutters that serves as a reminder that they didn’t deserve to die so brutally. Perhaps because of the nature of the crime, or because Capote made a conscious choice, ICB instead focuses on the killers and the psychological exploration of their characters as a way to define perhaps what drives those who chose to end the lives of others, and in such a fierce way.

Ed Pilkington wrote about Capote’s influence on the community, 50 years on from the Clutters’ deaths, and the community’s feelings towards ICB: “In Holcomb and Garden City, some of the residents welcomed his book. Alvin Dewey, the chief police investigator, championed it to the end. The Hopes too remain fans, cherishing the first-edition copy that Capote autographed for them. But many in the town continue to resent its intrusion, and refuse to talk about it or any of the subsequent films. Cliff Hope puts the ongoing hostility down to Capote’s unblinking portrayal of the killers. ‘Many people thought he should have written about the Clutter family, rather than the murderers.’”

As an aspiring writer and journalist, In Cold Blood is a body of work that one could only dream of someday emulating. As a crime and mystery fiction enthusiast it was at first disconcerting but still very refreshing to read an exploration of the mind of a killer. And as to the question of it being a creative work or a piece of journalism? According to Capote, every word of In Cold Blood is true. And Capote himself never appears in the book. He believed that the key to good journalism was making the author invisible.

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