In Cold Blood
The bloody murder of a prominent family by a couple of pathetic two-bit thieves; a rural Kansas town shattered by the brutal crime; a frantic search for the killers by investigators who found a bloody footprint at the murder scene; a petty criminal who rats out the killers; the long walk to the gallows and execution by hanging.
Sounds like a great pulp-fiction novel, right?
Think again. It's a journalistic account of a real crime that created a new genre. The author, Truman Capote, called it the nonfiction novel, which he defined as "a narrative form that employed all techniques of fictional art, but was nevertheless immaculately factual" (source).
In November 1959, Truman Capote saw this article in the New York Times:
Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15  (UPI)—A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut. (Source)
Capote convinced a magazine editor to let him go to Kansas and write about the crimes. He knew that, as a flamboyant, name-dropping, openly gay, bar-hopping New York City socialite, he might not exactly be accepted by the members of the conservative, tee totaling, church-going rural community where the crimes occurred. (We see his point.) So he brought along his childhood buddy, Harper Lee, who was just about to publish her own novel, To Kill a Mockingbird—you may have heard of it. He thought she could win over the locals with her southern charm. Harper Lee said, "Those people had never seen anyone like Truman—he was like someone coming off the moon" (source).
While Capote was in Kansas, endearing himself to the citizens and investigators, the killers—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock—were caught. Capote spent the next six years interviewing everyone involved in the investigation. He spent tons of time with the killers themselves and got particularly up-close-and-personal with Perry Smith. One of the agents in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI, for you in the know) even suspected they were having a sexual affair (source).
Capote's account of the murders first appeared as a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine in 1965. When the book came out in 1966, it was wildly popular—and instantly the center of controversy. Seems this nonfiction novel wasn't all nonfiction. Characters in the book denied that certain scenes had taken place and insisted that their conversations had been altered for dramatic effect. The lead KBI agent in the last scene claimed it was a total fabrication. One writer even thought that Capote had refused to assist in the prisoners' defense, even though he became extremely close to them, because he thought that a hanging would be a better end to the story.
Bottom line: plenty of people who saw Capote with the killers thought he was manipulative and deceitful in getting them to open up to him just to get a better story (source).
In Cold Blood was Capote's masterpiece. He used his novelistic skills to create a beautifully-written page-turner of a true crime book, with vivid characterization and gorgeous prose. But the experience took a huge toll on him physically and psychologically. In the years after its publication, he began to drink even more (he was never a slouch in that area), pop pills, and generally go downhill.
And before we go, let's talk Hollywood. In Cold Blood has been made into a movie twice: once in 1967 and once, for television, in 1996. Rent the 1967 version. Not only is it creepier, but the actor who plays killer Perry Smith, Robert Blake, was himself later acquitted of killing his wife Bonny Lee when he was 71 years old. (You should have seen the headlines.) In 2005, another film, Capote, focused on the writer's immersion in the Clutter case as he was writing the book. In that one, Philip Seymour Hoffman pretty much nails it as Capote. (The Oscar folks thought so, too.)
The last word?
This book is more than just a detailed reporting job of a brutal crime. It's literature.
Why Should I Care?
Sure, the novel is packed with violence and murder. But other than that?
Well, In Cold Blood is like the love child of CSI and your Philosophy 101 textbook. It forces us to wonder, who is safe? Whom can you trust? Is there justice? If four God-fearing people in a decent family can be shot and killed for no reason, can that happen to us?
Truman Capote doesn't really try to give The Answer to these questions as much as he tries to offer relative answers. He delves into the culture of small-town Kansas and sees the dark side as well as the "Prairie Home Companion" side. He gets inside the minds of two murderers and tries to get them to spill what got them to the point in their lives where they'd just as soon kill ya as look at ya.
The 1950s America of the book was enjoying the peace and economic prosperity of the post-WWII years, and families like the Clutters benefitted from that. They were educated, financially stable, and optimistic about the future. One of the detectives tells Capote that, "Of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered." By all accounts, Herb Clutter was a generous, respected guy—active in his church and business associations, closely connected to a wide circle of friends in a closely connected small town. His two youngest kids were popular, good students, with plenty of close friends.
Crashing into that perfect small-town America come a couple of characters who, unlike the Clutters, hadn't exactly benefitted from the rosy economy or had the good fortune to have prosperous or stable home lives. Perry Smith, particularly, never had much of a home at all. He had a chaotic and abusive childhood filled with abandonment and neglect. He envied his partner in crime, Dick Hickock, who at least had parents who cared for him even though they were poor.
For Perry and Dick, their close-knit community consisted of other inmates in the prisons where they both spent time.
Does that scenario sound familiar? Anyone? Income inequality? Class warfare? Haves and have-nots? If anything, things may have gotten worse since the happy days of the Clutter family in Kansas. And another difference?
We know it.
We have 24/7 information about what's going on globally, let alone in our own communities. We see what can happen when people want what everyone wants—whether it's democracy or a 50" flat-screen TV—but don't have the hope or means to get it. What fascinated (and scared the crap out of) the readers of In Cold Blood was this idea that none of us is really safe.
The town of Holcomb was shattered by the events in the book. It became a lot harder to trust your neighbors and welcome strangers.
Still is—and we're not even in Kansas anymore.