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.
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.
Time Marches On
This was written on the 50th anniversary of the Clutter murders. We get to meet a 66-year-old Bobby Rupp, who reminisces about the killings.
Here's the whole story about the friendship between Capote and Harper Lee.
Here's a really complete biography of Capote, complete with awesome video, if you ever have to write an essay about him.
The Original, Really Good, Creepy One from 1967
The IMDB site tells you everything you'd want to know about the original, Oscar-winning movie of In Cold Blood, released in 1967.
The Not as Good, Not as Creepy One from 1996
The made-for-television movie version of In Cold Blood from 1996. Ho hum.
The Truman Show
Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Capote in this film about the writing of In Cold Blood. Critics thought he out-Capote'd Capote.
The Truman Show II
Another biopic, including the sordid last years of Capote's drug-addled life.
The Onion thinks so.
He's Dead, Jim
Here's Capote's obit in the New York Times. The cause of death was under investigation, but we know it was probably an overdose. Drugs are bad, m'kay?
It Wasn't a Happening, It Was the Second Coming
In a 1965 book review of In Cold Blood, a UK book critic enthuses that the book's power is such that the book is more than a book, it's a "happening."
Well, Just Take Notes, Then
In The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel,Truman Capote is interviewed by journalist George Plimpton about In Cold Blood. Capote states that, among other things, he trained himself not to need a tape recorder to remember the long, rambling dialogues or monologues of In Cold Blood. Believe that?
William Burroughs Put a What on Capote?
This article describes in detail the feud between the publicity-mad Capote and his more underground contemporary, William Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch. It was one of many feuds that Capote privately encouraged.
Truman Capote interviewed on Firing Line
Capote discusses capital punishment with William F. Buckley and says that he is against it because it's unfairly applied, and because of the endless appeals systems, which renders the whole system "inhumane and cruel." So, are we right? Once you see the real Capote on video, doesn't Philip Seymour Hoffman nail this character?
PBS: It's Good for You
A part of PBS's "American Masters" series, devoted to the life and career of Truman Capote, includes a section on In Cold Blood.
Movie Poster, In Cold Blood, 1996
Iconic Original Cover
Bloody hatpin, anyone?
In case you didn't believe it was real.