In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote
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If criminals (as the saying goes) always
return to the scene of the crime, authors
of crime novels follow a much different
modus operandi.  They tend to stay in their
studies, inventing characters, weapons,
motives and the like
with only their
imagination as guide.  
But with
In Cold Blood,
Truman Capote was
the one who kept
coming back to the
locale of a real-life
murder, trying to
realize his goal of creating a different kind
of crime story, one that, in his words"would
be precisely like a novel, with a single
difference: Every word of it would be
true from beginning to end."

Capote (1924-1984) had already enjoyed
impressive literary successes before
In Cold
Blood
.  His debut novel Other Voices, Other
Rooms
was a bestseller in 1948, with an option
on movie rights snatched up by 20th Century
Fox even before publication. His 1958
novella
Breakfast at Tiffany's prompted
Norman Mailer to laud him as "the most
perfect writer of my generation," and
Hollywood this time turned the story into a
very successful film starring Audrey Hepburn.   
Despite these considerable achievements,
Capote may have made more headlines as
a
bon vivant  than a man of letters. The
masked ball he threw in honor of Katharine
Graham of
The Washington Post is still talked
about, and makes any short list of the most
memorable parties in New York history. And
Capote was just as capable of standing out
from the crowd on TV talk shows or Studio
54 or any other locale where celebrities
gathered.

How different he comes across in his greatest
work,
In Cold Blood, a masterpiece of control
and precision, almost the antithesis of Capote's
public persona of flamboyance and excess.  
This book was an international bestseller, but
also a literary masterpiece that aimed at
nothing less than redefining the role of the
novel in an age in which the immediacy of
news was already starting to overwhelm the
niceties of narrative fiction. Capote would
live for almost two decades after the
publication of this work, yet he never
completed another novel, and his posthumous
and fragmentary
Answered Prayers, when it
finally appeared in 1987, showed how little
progress he had made in living up to the
expectations engendered by
In Cold Blood.  
Yet in that true life crime story he validated
all of his early promise and managed—perhaps
the greatest of wonders—to create a book
that would be even more memorable than his
larger-than-life personality.
ROGUES GALLERY:
TRUMAN CAPOTE
Essay by Ted Gioia

The crime novel was mostly forgotten by cutting
edge American novelists during the 1950s and 1960s,
its formulas seen as too confining, perhaps even too
vulgar for the free
spirits of modern fiction.   
Even more to the point,
the idealization of "law
and order," inherent to
the genre, was unlikely to
appeal to a Jack Kerouac, a
Ken Kesey, a Thomas Pyn-
chon and the other literary
bohemians who increasingly
set the tone for the not-so-
belles lettres of this period,
often by means of works that revealed rather a
tendency to lawlessness and disorder.  

But when Truman Capote finally delivered the
great literary treatment of murder and justice of
the era,
In Cold Blood, his approach deviated
markedly from the experimental tendencies of
the day. Instead of embracing the outrageous
and fanciful, the extravagant and transgressive—
areas where he would have enjoyed an inherent
advantage as a chronicler—Capote moved
toward a scrupulous realism, and a deliberate
encroachment on the traditional territory of
nonfiction authors. He still relied on the
storytelling techniques honed over two decades
of writing fiction, yet now brought them to bear
on a subject and situation that would normally
be addressed by journalists or perhaps sociologists.

On November 16, 1959,
The New York Times
reported on the murder of four members of a
well-to-do family in a small town in Kansas. The
Times, then as now, downplayed sensational
crime stories, and this brief article, headlined
"Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain," would
have been easy enough to miss. "A wealthy
wheat farmer, his wife and their two young
children were found shot to death today in their
home," the newswire account began. "They had
been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after
being bound and gagged.…" Fascinated by the
few facts provided in this brief story, Capote was
soon on his way to Kansas to begin what would
turn out to be a six-year odyssey—a period
encompassing the investigation of the crime, the
arrest of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, their
trial and conviction, and ultimately their hanging
on April 14, 1965.  

For some time, Capote had been looking for a
different way of conceptualizing the modern novel.
He felt that little true innovation had taken place
since the 1920s, that most stories tended toward
either pulp fiction clichés or neo-fabulist excesses.  
With
In Cold Blood he hoped to do something
different, construct an essentially non-fiction
novel, one which would allow him to replace,
in his words, the "self-created world" of the
traditional novel, with "the everyday objective
world we all inhabit."  

Capote had long cut an impressive figure in the
literary world, able to command the interest of
socialites and celebrities, and even the mass media,
to a degree that no later American novelist has
been able to match. Yet in researching and writing
In Cold Blood, Capote revealed different talents
and social skills, sometimes relying on his reserves
of charm while in other instances falling back on
an almost ruthless pursuit of self-interest. No
wonder that, in addition to the story
in the novel,
an almost equally compelling story
behind the
novel would eventually come to light, even serving
as the basis for its own Hollywood movie, the 2005
film
Capote.  

In the world of law enforcement, police have
limits imposed on them by the courts—restrictions
that constrain what techniques they are allowed
to employ in eliciting a confession. Authors play
by different rules, usually outside the purview of
judge and jury, and Capote in this instance was
determined to extract a complete account of the
grisly murders from the reluctant Perry. At the
same time, Capote positioned himself as friend
and helper to the condemned man, using this as
leverage in his dealings with the prisoner. Critics
will continue to debate the thorny ethical questions
raised by Capote's research for
In Cold Blood. Yet
ultimately our author got the raw material he
needed for the key sections of his future bestseller
straight from the criminal’s lips, and the result was
one of the most gripping books of the era.

Five months after the murderers’ execution, the
first installment of
In Cold Blood appeared in The
New Yorker
. And only ten weeks after this
serialization was completed, the novel came out
in book form to great acclaim…but also
controversy.  Ever since the rise of romanticism,
authors have been allowed, even encouraged, to
make grand claims for themselves, but Capote
rankled many by asserting the one thing most
likely to irritate the literary establishment of the
modern day: namely, to have presented the truth,
reality, a fiction that wasn't really fiction. The very
term "non-fiction novel" spurred a backlash,
fueled further by the commercial success of the
work. And, indeed, if the essence of the
emerging worldview of that period—especially
in European currents, but soon to make their
way to America—was to deconstruct all claims
to truth, and to make even non-fiction look as if it
were a deception, then Capote was the most
retrograde of all, with his reversal of the
postmodernist course and stated aim to establish
fiction as a pathway to an accurate transcription
of events, making it into a type of supercharged
narrative both encompassing and transcending
historiographical and journalistic techniques.    

Capote's control and restraint—characteristics
hardly congruent with his public persona—are
everywhere evident in this book.  The prose,
first and foremost, lives up to his own self-
congratulatory praise:  "I think most writers,
even the best, overwrite," he would later explain.
"I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a
country creek." And he achieves just that in
this novel.  From the opening paragraph, the
tautness and clarity jump out at you from the
printed page:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat
plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other
Kansans call "out there." Some seventy miles east of
the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard
blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere
that is rather more Far West than Middle West.
The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a
ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them,
wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-
heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and
the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of
cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as
gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before
a traveler reaches them.

An uncanny sangfroid and lucidity are ever
present in this book, contrasting markedly with
the unsettling events chronicled, in writing that
often seems so unobtrusively matter-of-fact, but
which Capote must have struggled greatly to craft.
But equally impressive is his narrative voice,
as important to the success of
In Cold Blood as the
exemplary flow of the sentences and paragraphs.
When he finally presents Smith’s account of the
murder, Capote almost disappears entirely as an
authorial presence.  The reader feels drawn directly
into the mind of the killer, a chilling effect, but one
that is in no way dependent on the familiar pulp
fiction devices to create suspense and horror.   

This book may be less timely now, dealing as it
does with a small town crime more than a half-
century in the past.  Yet
In Cold Blood has hardly
lost any of its intensity and mesmerizing effect.
Even so, few major writers have tried to follow
in Capote's footsteps, and this type of vividly
realistic writing on crime is still mainly the
domain of genre specialists or non-fiction authors.
And strangest of all, Capote himself never managed
to repeat, or even approach the success of this
work. The author who was only thirty-five when
he started on
In Cold Blood, would never publish
another novel in his lifetime, and the surviving
fragments stitched together to form his
posthumous
Answered Prayers suggest that the
challenge of living up to standard set by this
bestseller and literary masterpiece was even more
than he could face.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His
 latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden
History
, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
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Further Clues:

In Cold Blood: 40 Years Later

Interview with Truman Capote by Pati Hill from The
Paris Review

The Critical Response to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

Capote in Kansas: a graphic novel
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