IN COLD BLOOD: TRUMAN CAPOTE’S 'NON-FICTION NOVEL'
According to its blurb, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is “a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative”. Based on a real crime, the text is “an experiment in journalistic writing” according to Capote who notes that the text is based on his own observations, official records, and interviews, stressing “more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time” (indeed, the book took him four years to write). The range of interviews make for a book that is something of a tapestry of narratives in an effort to give as full and accurate account as possible. However, as with any interview, there’s bound to be some bias, be it the interviewer’s or the interviewee’s, and there are ‘gaps’ between the threads, which is perhaps where Capote the journalist gives way to Capote the fiction writer.
The Beginning – Structuring a Narrative
In Cold Blood was inspired by a newspaper article Capote read in The New York Times. Only 300 words or so long, it began with the murder and concluded with some background on the victims. Capote reverses this; beginning with the background, he draws us first into the world of Holcomb. Initial details of Holcomb are significantly in the present tense to indicate this is a real place but Capote shifts to the past tense when he begins to report the crime. In fact, he begins before the crime, a rather sensationalist first chapter title - “The Last to see Them Alive” - ensuring a level of tension as we read towards the Clutter family’s deaths. Capote frequently uses analepsis and prolepsis to move us around the narrative, be it Bobby Rupp describing his last visit to the Clutter home before Capote noting this was “prior to taking a lie-detector test”, or, a more powerful example of timeframe manipulation, when Nancy sets out her clothes for the next day only for Capote to tell us “It was the dress in which she was to be buried”. The impact is striking.
Other shifts in time are more frustrating; when murderers Hickock and Smith make a service station attendant uneasy, parenthesis reveals “(The next day he reported to his employer, ‘We had some tough customers in here last night,’ but he did not think, then or for the longest while, to connect the visitors with the tragedy in Holcomb.)”. It’s a frustration we experience more than once because we come to the story retrospectively whereas the people of Holcomb live it as it happens. “Whoever did it was someone within ten miles of where we now stand” says Arthur Clutter; Capote then cuts to “Approximately four hundred miles east” to tell us more about Hickock and Smith.
Hickock and Smith – Giving a Voice to the Villains
We meet Hickock and Smith within the first few pages of the text. In fact, Smith is “like Mr Clutter” in that he doesn’t drink coffee, a subtle similarity that is meant to present Smith as more than a two-dimensional monster. Capote prepares us for a sometimes sympathetic view of these men as early as the text’s epigraph, quoting François Villon’s ‘Ballad of the Hanged’, albeit in the original French as if to disguise his intentions. Translated, it reads:
O Brother men who live, though we are gone,
Let not your hearts be hardened at the view,
For if you pity us you gaze upon,
God is more like to show you mercy too…
Pray then to God that he forgive us all
With Smith, the sympathy is perhaps keenest when we learn of his childhood. “I never got any encouragement” Smith tells us, and if there’s arrogance in “I had this great natural musical ability” it’s tempered by “which Dad didn’t recognize. Or care about.” Capote intends not just to describe Smith’s crime but to understand it, looking far back into his character’s background. Economic reasons are another factor contributing to the deterioration of Smith’s relationship with his father; “with no money and the grub getting low, we couldn’t help but be on each other’s nerves” Smith recognises with his disarmingly colloquial voice. But before you can feel too strongly for Smith, Capote includes a letter from Smith’s sister, Barbara. “Dad is not responsible for your wrong doings” she states, “What you have done, whether right or wrong, is your own doing.” As well as italics, she uses block capitals to emphasize her points. Hers is a voice very different in tone to Perry Smith’s and she is easier to understand - a fellow prisoner, Willie-Jay, even offers his own interpretation of her letter within the text.
Understanding Smith and Hickock, however, despite the insights offered by their own testimonies, proves more difficult. When Smith wonders why he murdered the Clutters, Capote compares the problem to “a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified colour”, and Smith’s comment “‘I don’t know why,’” is said “as if holding it to the light, and angling it now here, now there”. As these similes indicate, In Cold Blood is no mere reporting of details and it doesn’t make comfortable reading. “It was like I wasn’t part of it” Smith says, “More as though I was reading a story. And I had to know what was going to happen.” It’s the same for us as readers.
Voices, Verification, and Verisimilitude
The ambivalent representations of Hickock and Smith may have upset some readers but the real controversy came with the claim that In Cold Blood was “a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences”, to give the book its full title. Capote had useful experience as a journalist for The New Yorker but he did not take notes during these interviews, relying instead on his memory to reproduce precise quotes – something he claimed he could do with “over 90%” accuracy. Some would dispute this while others denied certain events even took place.
It’s true, there are parts Capote could not know as fact. When Mr Clutter takes an apple outside with him we’re told “it was ideal apple-eating weather”, but whose voice is this? It surely can’t be Clutter’s, and if it’s Capote then how did he know about the apple or the weather? We get the thoughts and views of a little girl, Jolene, details Capote surely didn’t get by interviewing the child, and at one point even the perspective of a cat! So why would Capote blur the lines between fact and fiction? In some cases it is clear that Capote’s deceit is for the protection of others, such as with “a father and son who shall here be known as John Senior and John Junior” or when he notes a “Mr Smith (though that is not his true name)”. But in other examples, as with an apple or the thoughts of a young girl, Capote is deliberately building a narrative. Details such as these make for more convincing characters, presenting us with real people to care about while granting a degree of verisimilitude. Varied viewpoints also creates a sense of community; In Cold Blood is not just about the Clutters, and it’s certainly not just about their deaths, but rather it’s about how an entire town was affected by a brutal, seemingly random, crime. A crime that went unresolved for quite some time.
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith are eventually caught and brought to trial, one that ends with their deaths. But before their execution, Capote gives us the stories of other condemned men. They only receive a page or two in comparison to Hickock’s and Smith’s novel length account, but it’s an effective way of delaying the conclusion and providing more tension. Their deaths are first reported via a newspaper statement suitably stark and objective: “Hickock, 33 years old, died first, at 12.41a.m.; Smith, 36, died at 1.19”. We also get lead investigator Alvin Dewey’s more personal view of the event, hearing the “thud-snap that announces a rope-broken neck” along with him.
Whereas other writers may have foregrounded themselves in the narrative, inserted themselves into the story via their interviews and research, Capote is notably absent from the text, and though there are examples of his personal bias and opinion, it seems this was an attempt to present an objective account. For critic Kenneth Tynan, Capote remained too uninvolved; “For the first time an influential writer of the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die,” he said, “and – in my view – done less than he might have to save them.” He accused Capote of wanting their execution in order to give his book a better ending.
Yet it is not death that concludes In Cold Blood. Dewey “imagined that with the deaths of Smith and Hickock he would experience a sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed” Capote tells us, but instead he recalls an event occuring a year previously and this is the one that ends the text. He meets Susan Kidwell in the cemetary and they talk of what she has been up to since her friend’s murder. They talk of Bobby Rupp too, his recent marriage, and so it is with life the book finishes, not death. However, Dewey does see something of the woman Nancy may have become in Susan, and the final line of the text is the ghostly “whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat”. It makes for a haunting conclusion, even if there are those who claim Capote invented it.
According to true crime writer Jack Olsen, Capote “made true crime an interesting, successful, commercial genre” but he also “began the process of tearing it down.” Yet for all its fabrications, In Cold Blood remains a powerful piece of writing. More than straight journalism, it is part police procedural, part thriller, part drama, with a great deal to offer readers. “I didn't honestly know whether I would go on with it” said Capote, wondering if it “would be worth all that effort.” Considering the complexity of the narrative and its function as a social commentary, the variety of perspectives and insights that reward the reader, I for one believe that it was.